How Long Before a Felony Can Be Expunged?

Life after prison is admittedly not easy for many felons after incarceration. Even for those that didn’t receive a prison sentence, the labeling of an individual as a “felon” often makes day-to-day life a bit trickier. Government programs, including housing, financial assistance, and food stamps are often limited to felons. In addition, finding employment is a journey in and of itself for individuals convicted of a felony. For this reason, felons often find themselves looking for a way to rid themselves of their criminal record.

Expungement of a record is the only way a felon can make their criminal record completely disappear. This process can often be tricky and governed by seemingly endless red tape. However, it is possible. In fact, tens of thousands of people across the United States have gotten a second chance through record expungements[1]. So, what is it?

What is Expungement?

Expungement of a record is the sealing of an individual’s criminal record for a specific crime. This process can completely erase the criminal record of a felon. This allows them access to all the benefits allowed to the general population. This can give them equal access to government programs, benefits, and employment.

If an individual commits a crime, misdemeanor or felony, they will have to select the “Yes” box on the dreaded “Have you ever been convicted of a crime” box on an application for employment or government aid. If this individual has had their record expunged, however, they can select “no”. When a background check is conducted to verify the validity of this answer, an individual with their record expunged will have the same results as someone who has never been convicted of a crime. This can even the playing field for felons competing with their peers for a job position or financial assistance.

Who is Eligible for Expungement?

The expungement process, for the most part, takes place in the state court. This is because the federal government doesn’t have much legislature in place governing expungements[2]. In fact, expunging a federal crime is largely impossible. Laws establishing a protocol for expunging a federal record have been proposed, but at this time nothing has been passed.

On a state level, there are various crimes that are often not eligible to be expunged. These crimes are typically of a severely violent nature. These include murder, rape, violent sex crimes, and weapons charges[3]. Restrictions also typically include sex crimes involving a minor.

These crimes will often disqualify someone from obtaining an expungement of records. Yet, this isn’t always the case. Many states will take into consideration the possibility of administrative error or self-defense. Some states, however, will automatically disqualify individuals convicted of these crimes. It all essentially depends on the state government protocol.

There are certain factors outside of the particular crime that can affect a felon’s chance for expungement. A large factor is the time since the crime was last committed. A crime committed decades ago has an inherently higher chance of being expunged than a similar crime committed 5 years ago.

The way in which the post-conviction time is spent can also play a large role in the state’s decision to grant expungement. If someone committed a felony 10 years ago but has committed various misdemeanors in the time since then, they will have a difficult time getting their record expunged. In addition, proof of becoming a contributing member of society can help a felon’s chances of shedding their criminal record. Employment, volunteering, and community engagement can help someone’s appeal to have their record expunged.

A felon is always advised to at least discuss the possibility of expungement with legal counsel or a government employee.

Applying for Expungement

As stated, expungements are held exclusively on the state level. This makes applying for expungement a bit difficult. Qualifications and eligibility vary drastically from state to state. For instance, Maine and North Dakota only allow juveniles and certain other specific demographics to apply to have their record expunged[4]. These states are, however, in the minority. Most states have broader criteria that individuals can utilize to get their record expunged.

Those looking to get their felony expunged are highly advised to seek legal counsel. Many lawyers make a living by helping people get their felonies expunges, and thus they have a proper understanding of the laws governing expungement. Lawyers can often guide felons through the legal jargon and red tape surrounding expungements.

In most states, the expungement process begins by filling out an application for expungement. These documents vary on a state by state basis but can typically be found on the state’s government website. If not, they can be found at the local courthouse.

These applications often must be submitted alongside criminal record documents. Obtaining these records can be quite difficult. The local courthouse is likely a good place to start[5]. Many courthouses even have online systems that can provide individuals with their necessary documentation.

After the submittal of an application, some states will simply decide on whether or not to grant the expungement. Some states, however, will require an additional court proceeding to determine whether expungement is possible. These court proceedings can be an opportunity for a felon to discuss with the court how they have contributed to their community in their time post-conviction. Felons may also benefit from describing to the court how their criminal record has negatively affected their wellbeing.

Verifying Expungement

It is important for an individual to thoroughly evaluate their public criminal record after hearing that a crime has been expunged. It is fairly common for a clerical error, or simple forgetfulness, to lead to a supposedly expunged crime to still appear on a criminal record. This can be easily taken care of if it is noticed. However, the individual is responsible for keeping up to date with this paperwork.

This paperwork is what will be seen by landlords, employers, and the like. Thus, even if a crime is expunged, if the record says otherwise then it’s as if the crime was never expunged. These records are available either at the local courthouse or online, depending on the jurisdiction. If a discrepancy is found, the court should be notified immediately to ensure that it gets remedied as soon as possible.


Felons often feel that they are never done serving their time. The societal and legislative restrictions imposed upon them because of their criminal past often stick with them for life. Expungement offers these individuals the chance to get rid of their criminal record once and for all. It is not an easy process, and it is far from a guarantee, but it is an option worth exploring for all individuals with a criminal past.

For an expungement to take place, a felon must check with their state government regarding the specific laws relating to their crime. From there, legal counsel should be consulted to follow the subsequent legislative steps to applying for expungement.

Expungement often offers felons a second chance at fully assimilating with the general population without a gray cloud hanging over their head. It is an option that all individuals convicted of a crime, felons and misdemeanants alike, should explore post-conviction.






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