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The Research Is In: Why Record Clearing is Critical to Philadelphia’s Workforce Development Strategy

When The Promise launched its first Jobs and Opportunities Community Challenge in November 2021, community leaders and organizations throughout Philadelphia expressed excitement for a focus on criminal record clearing and employment access.  

Author: Sarah Hutton, lead, career pathways at United Way

Despite this excitement, some people still had very understandable questions. What does record clearing have to do with employment access? How and why was this chosen as the first jobs-related program of The Promise? In times of increased stress about crime, why does it make sense to clear records?  

To help answer these questions, among others, The Promise partnered with a team of evaluators from the Juvenile Justice Research & Reform Lab at Drexel University. One of the first reports produced by this team is a review of the literature entitled, “Synthesis of the Research: Understanding the Significance of Criminal Record Clearing as a Poverty Reduction Strategy.” This review compiles findings and insights from existing research around the topic of record clearing and conveys why this work is critical to any workforce development strategy in Philadelphia.  

Over the next five years, this literature review will inform The Promise’s evaluation of our record-clearing clinics, but we also believe it holds value to you – our donors, stakeholders, and supporters – who are interested in better understanding why record clearing matters.  

A few important key learnings include: 

  • Due in part to over 90% of employers conducting some type of criminal background check on applicants, individuals with history in the criminal legal system are half as likely to receive a second interview or job offer as individuals with no such history – and, these criminal records can exist even when a person was only charged with a crime but found not guilty (page 1-2).
  • Keeping individuals with records unemployed or underemployed means the amount they earn over the course of their lifetimes will be much lower. A 2017 study estimated aggregate losses of more than $55 billion among formerly incarcerated individuals, $77 billion among individuals with previous felony convictions, and $240 billion among individuals with previous misdemeanor convictions. Together, these totals are equivalent to nearly 2% of the United States’ annual gross domestic product.  This not only impacts the individuals, but also the cities, states, and even our country as a whole due to the lost opportunity to collect tax revenues (page 3).
  • A 2020 study conducted in Michigan suggests that individuals with expunged records posed a lower risk for criminal behavior than the general population of the state - i.e., 4.7 arrests per 100 expungement recipients compared to 6.6 arrests per 100 Michigan adults (page 9-10). This is particularly important within the context of increased concern about crime; clearing more records could actually be one of many important tools to assist with crime reduction.
  • Currently in Pennsylvania, records can take up to 5 years to clear, highlighting the need to make this our first jobs-related program so that this important work could begin right away.


Despite all this literature review teaches us, very little historical research has been done in this area.

This is why we are also partnering with Juvenile Justice Research & Reform Lab at Drexel University for ongoing evaluation of The Promise’s record-clearing clinics and examining what happens to individuals during and after the record clearing process. In fact, a few months ago, the team at Drexel shared early pilot findings from The Promise’s first few clinics that helped us shape what the rest of our year would look like. A few of the quotes from community members who spoke to lawyers at a record clearing clinics include: 

 “The event today gave me hope to keep striving and gave me motivation to try more and not give up." 

 “I'm optimistic that things are going to work out for me and for everyone.” 

 “I'm just excited to be here. I was about to give up hope, but I came here and found that there were things to be done. I couldn't be happier with how today turned out.” 

As of January 2023, The Promise and its community partners have held 25 clinics. Over 1,100 people have talked to lawyers and 77% were found to be eligible to move forward as clients in the record clearing process. Additionally, over 4,000 people have attended the community resource fairs that are part of each and every clinic; these resource fairs include a wide variety of community partners that focus on job placement, housing assistance, substance use prevention, and much more.   
While this is a very new program and we still have much to learn. This literature review is the first of many steps we are taking to address this important need in our community and learn as much as possible while doing it.  

For every Philadelphian who has been held back over a very old mistake; for every person in our city who knows quality of life for the whole neighborhood improves when its residents are employed, optimistic, and committed to always improving upon their lives; and, for every city and town that would like to implement similar programming but needs to learn from other cities first – we pledge (and promise) to engage in high-quality evaluation of this work and to share our findings with you along the way. 

This report is part of United Way's Knowledge Center. To see more reports focused on data and community learning, visit the Knowledge Center's portal

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