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Clearing Your Records of Past Arrests

Last month on this blog, we talked about more employers using reference checks as part of thorough investigations into applicants’ pasts. Today’s Wall Street Journal says that employers are taking that process further to include checks of arrests and convictions, which applicants must be prepared to explain or remove from their records.

You say you’re not a criminal?  What about that campus demonstration and sit-in where the police arrested everyone blocking the entrance to a building on disorderly conduct charges? Or what about the traffic stop, where the officer found a joint in the back seat of the car you were driving? Perhaps you ended up paying a fine or even having the charges dropped; there are still traces of those arrests on official records that may come up when an employer starts looking into your past.

Arrests in the United States are hardly uncommon. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told the Journal that an estimated 60% of American men have been arrested, up from 50% in 1967, which he attributes to more arrests for minor drug and domestic violence cases. The Journal highlights Department of Justice figures showing that arrests for pot possession more than tripled, to 1.8 million, between 1980 and 2007.

Granted, arrests are different from convictions, and the Journal cites the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says employers cannot make hiring decisions based on arrests that did not result in convictions. Still — when a hiring manager is faced with a choice between two equally qualified candidates, only one of whom has an arrest record, who is more likely to get the nod?

In some states you can petition the authorities to clear past arrest records for minor crimes, which means having the official records of your arrest erased (expunged is the legal term) blocked, or sealed.  The processes and categories of offenses vary from state to state, but more often than not, you’ll need to hire an attorney.  A Chicago attorney, Tamara Holder, specializes in such cases for Illinois residents, and advertises her record-clearing services on a Web site. The Journal says legal-aid organizations and public defenders offices can also be enlisted to help.

The process is neither quick nor fool-proof. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s pardons board handles record-clearing cases, and faces a 3-year backlog in requests. A new law in that state allows local courts to process the petitions, which could speed things up a bit. Even after the official record is expunged, sealed, or whatever, iit may take some time for commercial public records databases — some with fees as low as $10 a search — to catch up.

If you have an arrest record, even if it has been cleared, you may want to disclose the information before the employer finds it in a background check. “If someone has a criminal history, we can work with them,” a Chicago-area executive told the Journal. “But if they have one and lie to us, that’s pretty ominous.”