Once you have been convicted of a crime as an adult, and sometimes even as a juvenile, your criminal record can follow you for life. Most states offer at least a limited remedy for sealing or expunging a criminal record, or reducing its future impact. A few states offer minimal relief, such as setting aside a conviction in favor of a dismissal but leaving the full record of proceedings open to the public, or allowing the a defendant to get a certification that indicates that his criminal record should no longer be considered for certain purposes, such as employment or professional licensing. Some states exclude certain types of offenses, such as traffic offenses or certain serious felonies, from eligibility for sealing or expungement.
Most jurisdictions have systems whereby people can apply for pardons, also known as executive clemency. While an expungement is typically issued by the court in which a person was convicted of a crime, a pardon is an executive action which can partially or fully lift the effects of the conviction. Another option is to seal a criminal record, although this option is often limited in its availability and in some states may be limited to juvenile records. In some cases it may be possible to bring a "collateral attack" on the conviction, to try to have the conviction set aside based upon an error in prior court proceedings. This is a difficult process, involving a separate court action which must be commenced within a limited period of time after the conviction is entered, and the burden of proof on a defendant can be onerous.
As your remedies depend upon the laws of the jurisdiction in which you were convicted, and may also depend upon the nature of your conviction offense and other offenses on your record, it is important to research the specific laws of that jurisdiction when evaluating whether and when to try to get relief from a conviction or criminal history.
When a criminal record is sealed, it is no longer available to the public. The sealed record may be available for a narrow range of purposes, such as to a prosecutor's office if the defendant faces new criminal charges, to a law enforcement agency that is reviewing the defendant's application for employment, or in other contexts in which the state has determined that it is appropriate for the defendant's full record to be considered in the interest of public safety.
Some states provide for the automatic sealing of criminal records if a charge is dismissed without a conviction. Some states limit sealing to defendant's first criminal offense, or require that the defendant bring a motion and prove that the record should be sealed. Some states automatically seal juvenile records once the juvenile reaches a certain age, while others require a motion to seal even for juvenile court matters. The requirements for sealing vary considerably from state to state.
People seek expungement for a variety of reasons. Some simply wish to remove an embarrassing blot from their personal history. Others want to have their right to vote reinstated, in a state which suspends voting rights for convicted felons. Some wish to have their right to possess a firearm restored, so that they may go hunting. Some require an expungement in order to be eligible for desired employment. As a general rule, chances for successfully obtaining an expungement go up with the demonstration of need, and with evidence of complete rehabilitation.
In its most literal terms, an expungement or expunction involves the physical destruction of a record. In most states, the process of expungement may not be much different from sealing, or may involve the partial destruction of a record while the court or state maintains some information on the underlying offense and its disposition. Once a criminal record is expunged, in most senses the record is treated as if it does not exist.
States have very different policies on expungement. Some states may exclude the possibility of expungement, others may limit its availability to people who have no more than one criminal conviction on their records, while others may be more generous. You will also be required to have been discharged from your sentence for a considerable period of time, without further legal incident. You will need to investigate the policies of the jurisdiction which issued the conviction or convictions, in determining whether you are eligible for expungement.
Beyond the specifics of your record, states may impose further limits on the availability or effect of expungement. For example, some states maintain separate registries for people who have been convicted of child abuse or sex offenses, and the expungement of a criminal record may not affect those registries. Also, for some subsequent purposes such as applying for a job which requires a government security clearance, the odds are very high that the employer will discover the full criminal history so it may be best to admit having an expunged conviction when applying for such a job. For example, if you have points on your license or had your license suspended as a result of a criminal offense, expungement of a criminal record will not affect your driving record.
The system of applying for a pardon or executive clemency varies significantly between jurisdictions. Generally speaking, if your jurisdiction has more generous laws for sealing or expunging your record, your first recourse should probably be under those laws. If your jurisdiction has a restrictive expungement law, or if you do not qualify, you may consider applying for a pardon as an alternative. As with expungement, some jurisdictions have relatively liberal policies of issuing pardons to people who evidence rehabilitation, while other jurisdictions are very restrictive.
For U.S. federal convictions, pardons are issued by the President. In states, pardons are issued by the governor, with varying levels of control and influence over the pardons process given to state pardons boards. If your conviction is for a U.S. military offense, you will have to apply for clemency with the branch of the military which issued the conviction before you can apply for a pardon with the President. Ordinarily, your pardon application will include extensive personal information, an explanation of the facts of the offense for which you wish to be pardoned, your other criminal history (if any), your rehabilitation, your residences, financial, and employment history, and affidavits from people who know you about your present good character. Ordinarily, you must serve out your sentence in full, including any term of probation or parole, before you will be considered for a pardon.
The effect of a pardon can vary significantly between states. In some states a pardon results in your being treated as if you were never convicted, with the full restoration of your rights. In another state, your pardon may only signify that you have been deemed rehabilitated, while leaving your criminal record intact. In some states, for a restoration of your civil rights, the pardon must explicitly state that your rights have been restored. While there is usually no cost to applying for a pardon, beyond your investment of time, some paper and a stamp, you should review your state's clemency laws when determining if seeking a pardon will be of benefit to you.