For the nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. with a record of arrest or conviction, their record is not simply part of their past but a continuing condition that impacts nearly every aspect of their life. Their record makes it hard to get a job and support a family, secure a place to live, contribute to the community, and participate fully in civic affairs.
In recent years, most states have passed laws aimed at restoring economic opportunity, personal freedoms, and human dignity to millions of these individuals by providing a path to clear their record. But for too many, this relief remains out of reach because of monetary barriers, including not only the cost of applying for record clearing but also the requirement in many jurisdictions that applicants satisfy debt incurred as part of the underlying criminal case before they can have their record cleared. This can be a high bar: the total amount of fines and fees can run to thousands of dollars for even minor infractions and can be considerably higher for felonies.
People prevented from clearing their record because they cannot afford to pay are usually those most in need of relief. And, perversely, because a record significantly impairs economic opportunity, having an open record makes it harder to pay off fines and fees and therefore harder to qualify for record clearing. This burden falls especially heavily on Black and Brown communities, which are more likely to have high concentrations of both criminal records and poverty because of structural racism in criminal law enforcement and in the economy. Ability-to-pay tests and similar waiver approaches to reduce or eliminate monetary barriers to record clearing have been shown to be poor safeguards in many contexts.