Restrictions on access to criminal records: A national survey

We have recently revised and brought up to date the 50-state chart comparing laws on judicial sealing and expungement.  This chart provides an overview of the national landscape of laws authorizing courts to restrict public access to criminal records.  The chart summaries are illustrated by color-coded maps, and explained in greater detail in the state “profiles” of relief mechanisms that have been part of the Restoration of Rights Resource since that project began in 2004.  We hope this research will provide a useful tool for civil and criminal practitioners, policy advocates, and government officials.

A brief overview of research methodology and conclusions follows.


A criminal record severely restricts access to many opportunities and benefits that can be indispensable to leading a law-abiding life.  Unwarranted discrimination based on criminal record was recognized as an urgent public policy problem by President Obama when he established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse.  In the past decade, as the collateral consequences of conviction have increased in severity, state legislatures across the country have been actively exploring ways to set reasonable limits on the use of criminal records for noncriminal justice purposes, consistent with public safety.  One of the most popular measures involves restricting public access to criminal records through measures most frequently described as “expungement” or “sealing.”  Our recent report on “second chance” legislation identified 27 states that just since 2013 have given their courts at least some authority to limit access to records.

At the same time, however, judicial authority to close the record of concluded criminal cases remains quite limited, with only a dozen states authorizing their courts to restrict public access to a substantial number of felony convictions.  The fact that nine of these 12 states have had broad sealing schemes in place for many years underscores how difficult it is to make much legislative progress in a risk-averse environment where criminal background checking has become big business.
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