Expungement Reform in Arizona: The Empirical Case for a Clean Slate

Sonja B. Starr 
Professor of Law
The University of Chicago Law School

This Article argues that Arizona should adopt an expungement law, ideally joining the “Clean Slate” movement to make expungement automatic for those legally eligible. 

In the past few years, many states have adopted or expanded legislation allowing people who meet certain eligibility requirements to expunge their adult criminal convictions. The latest wave of reforms makes this relief automatic after the requisite number of crime-free years have passed. These laws offer people with records a crucial chance to reintegrate into the community without the permanent albatross of a criminal record. My empirical research in Michigan, conducted with Professor J.J. Prescott, revealed that people receiving expungements saw large jumps in wages and employment and had very low subsequent crime rates—suggesting that expungement can be win-win for the individual and society. Yet Arizona remains an outlier among its sister states in having no expungement policy for otherwise-valid adult convictions—it does not even allow expungement by petition, much less automatically. This Article argues that Arizona should adopt an expungement law, ideally joining the “Clean Slate” movement to make expungement automatic for those legally eligible.

Key Findings:

  • In Michigan, our empirical study found that receipt of an expungement was associated with a 23% jump in wages within a year, after accounting for the individual’s prior employment trajectory and fluctuations in the state’s economy. This was driven mainly by unemployed or marginally employed people finding steady work.

  • Michigan data also showed that crime rates for those receiving expungement were vanishingly low—indeed, lower than average crime rates for the state’s adult population as a whole.

  • The discouraging news from Michigan was that the vast majority of those available for expungement did not apply for it, largely due to lack of knowledge and the administrative and financial burdens associated with the application process.

  • Arizona, meanwhile, offers nothing comparable to expungement for people with records—even its “set-aside” remedy, which requires a demanding process to obtain, does not seal records, so those receiving set-asides still face employment and other hurdles.

Key Recommendations:

  • Arizona should offer expungement of criminal records to those who have, after completing their sentences, demonstrated law-abiding behavior for a reasonable period of time, such as five years.

  • Rather than requiring legally eligible people to jump through bureaucratic hoops that are costly to them and to the state, Arizona should take advantage of available technology to automate the expungement process for those who qualify.

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