A new study launching in Kansas hopes to take a long-term look at how clearing criminal records can help improve the lives of ex-offenders.
Over the next year and a half, Kansas Legal Services will be looking for 300 to 450 Kansans to participate in an expungement study that will offer legal assistance to convicts who want a clean slate. To be eligible for the study, a person must have a conviction eligible for expungement under Kansas law, served their sentence in full including any parole or probation and paid all associated fines and fees.
Study participants must also agree to let researchers from the Harvard School of Law Access to Justice Lab track their lives for up to five years to see how their situations — especially housing and job opportunities — change.
In return, Kansas Legal Services will provide legal help for free. Participants will just have to pay the court’s case filing fee of about $200, Kansas Legal Services Executive Director Marilyn Harp said. Although Kansas Legal Services generally helps only low-income Kansans with civil legal issues, ex-offenders with modest incomes will also be considered.
“Our thought is that if people are able to clear their criminal record, their chances of having improved housing stability and improved employment stability go up,” said Renee Danser, associate director of research and strategic partnerships at Harvard’s Access to Justice Lab, which researches ways to make the justice system more fair and accessible.
By age 23, nearly one-third of American adults have been arrested, she said, citing a recent study.
For many, that criminal record leads to less-desirable housing options, fewer jobs and often lower wages, a higher risk of re-offending and a cycle of poverty that can be difficult to escape.
“We think that record clearing helps people improve their position in the community and that generally helps the community prosperity,” Danser said.
“We also expect that recidivism levels will go down, so people will be less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system if they are successful with clearing their criminal record.”
Harp said the study will focus on ex-offenders who have convictions in state court, not those with municipal or federal court convictions. Participants will be divided into two groups, with one receiving representation from an attorney and the other representing themselves in court but with the help of online legal forms and coaching from a lawyer.
In Kansas, the list of offenses that can be expunged is “fairly generous,” Harp said. But certain crimes can never be erased from someone’s criminal record. Those include murder, manslaughter, sex crimes against children, child endangerment, child abuse and rape.
Crimes that can expunged include traffic infractions, a variety of misdemeanors and drug crimes, perjury, vehicular homicide and most first convictions for driving under the influence. In most cases, a person has to wait three to five years after serving their sentence before they can seek an expungement in Kansas and they can’t have any new felony convictions within the prior two years. For more information about which crimes qualify, go to www.kansaslegalservices.org/node/1915/facts-about-expungement-kansas or read Kansas statute 21-6614.
After the expungements are granted, Harvard researchers plan to check on study participants several times a year for about five years to see if they “actually feel like their housing and employment and general well-being is improving,” Danser said. That will include administering surveys to ex-offenders and monitoring their arrest, employment, court and housing records.
Danser said that obtaining an expungement can be challenging for ex-offenders because hiring a lawyer or paying court filing fees may be cost prohibitive and the process can be difficult to navigate alone.
Others don’t know clearing their record is an option.
For those that do attempt it, success rates are “quite low” — somewhere between 50 and 70% — often because people have “built-in barriers that make it difficult for people to follow through,” she said.
Kansas Legal Services and Harvard hope the study reveals what level of legal help will help change that.
“This project has a great potential to find promising practices that will reduce recidivism and give support to ex-offenders to improve their lives,” Harp said.