Having charges, arrests and convictions on your criminal record for years after you’ve served time, completed a sentence or been released is, well, criminal. But nevertheless, many people struggle with the realities of their criminal record after they’re through with the justice system. Your criminal record can tarnish your public image and prevent you from getting a job - which, for many, can lead to a cycle of poverty and crime that feels impossible to get out of.

Even more outrageous, you can get arrests on your criminal record even for cases where you were never charged with anything, and some job applications ask applicants to disclose if they’ve ever been arrested. Most people who’ve been arrested have to mark yes, and find their applications turned down again and again as a result, even if there was never a charge associated with the arrest.

However, there is an option that exists for some people, and most people eligible for it never take advantage of it: expunging your record.

Expunging your record - essentially clearing it - can restore freedom and rights to someone who’s been held back by a criminal record. But not everyone can qualify, and not every state will allow you to do it. Your first step is to figure out what the rules in the state your arrests, convictions or charges were made in.

Rules vary by state

The rules for what you can clean up and how vary state by state. Some states enable people to expunge records almost as a matter of course, while others make the process virtually impossible, include caveats or have numerous restrictions on who is allowed to clean up or expunge their free arrest records.

For example, California issues Certificates of Rehabilitation for people who’ve served their sentence, and also allows people who were arrested but not charged to petition for a Declaration of Factual Innocence, which effectively removes the charges entirely from one’s record and allows them to claim they have never been arrested.

Colorado law now allows drug addictions to be sealed, and Missouri allows expungement for all misdemeanors and most non-Class A felonies, bar exceptions for certain violent crimes.

On the other hand, Georgia allows people to apply for records restriction for some charges, but has no process in place to completely expunge one’s records.

Most states will have some process in place to seal or expunge records for youth, but even that’s not a guarantee. The best way to find out what your legal rights are is to look up the laws in the state your charges or criminal history was recorded in (not the state you currently live in, if it’s changed). The Restoration of Rights Project has a chart that breaks down the policies by type of crime, age and state, and cites specific statutes to explain how each state’s laws work.

Expunging or sealing your record

Expunging your record removes charges, arrests and convictions entirely, while sealing them only removes them from public record. However, both allow you to deny any previous incidents on a job application, and both prospects are worth considering if you’re looking to reclaim legal rights or improve your chances in a job search.

Once you’ve decided what course of action you’re going to take, you should petition either the court system, or the agency that arrested you, to begin the process of sealing or expunging a record. You’ll want to get an attorney to help you with this issue, even if the process or related charges seem relatively simple to address, as chances are you may end up in front of judge who will make the final decision.

There is a fee associated with expunging records, which can vary by state. That, along with associated attorney’s fees, means that expunging or sealing your record may cost several hundred dollars and take several weeks to months to fully complete.

It will not be an easy process, and it may not be a cheap one either - but the long-term benefits are numerous. If you haven’t looked into sealing or expunging your criminal record, it may be time to take it into consideration.

Author's Bio: 

Jeremiah Owyang is an internet entrepreneur and P2P technology developer.