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The Paper Prisons Initiative of Santa Clara University conducts research to draw attention to the millions of Americans that have completed their time but remain stuck in “paper prisons” - burdened by criminal records that are eligible to be removed but, due to bureaucracy and other hurdles, remain on their records. This website contains links to state level reports and analyses that estimate the size of the “second chance gap” - the difference between eligibility and delivery of one’s second chance - using the methodology described in The Second Chance Gap (Mich. Law. Rev. 2020)

What Does This Project Do?

The Paper Prisons Initiative uses empirical research to document the barriers that prevent the one in three American adults that has a criminal record from receiving a second chance. It is a partner of the Clean Slate Initiative, a national bipartisan coalition advancing policies to automatically clear all eligible criminal records across the United States. 

A staggering number of Americans live in a paper prison due to contact with the criminal justice system: 80M - or one in three American adults - has a criminal record. Over 11M Americans cannot drive legally for reasons unrelated to driving. >5.2M Americans are barred from voting due to a prior felony. 2.3M Americans are incarcerated, a large share of them elderly and in theory eligible for early release. The burdens of mass incarceration and criminalization are not evenly distributed: African Americans are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than whites, pretrial jail populations consisting of mainly African American and Hispanic arrestees have doubled in the past fifteen years, and African youth are confined at rates over 4 times the rate of white youth. Studies have found that the disparate variance cannot be explained by differences in levels of criminal offending, which themselves can reflect biased decision-making in criminalization.

Across the country, every state has passed “second chance” legislation to, under certain circumstances, allow Americans to clear their criminal records, get back their right to vote, and shorten their sentences. These “second chances” are intended to lower barriers to full reintegration into society and unlock opportunity for millions of Americans. But our research documents that only a small fraction of those eligible for relief have received it, placing tens of millions of Americans in the “second chance gap.”

We produce reports and research that estimate the number of people stuck in “paper prisons” due to their inability to access second chance relief.

Through our empathy hackathons, we partner with nonprofits and changemakers to build tools and technology to address second chance gaps and to raise awareness of the barriers that people often face after they’ve served their time, and to further the creative and innovative approaches to building an integrated society they are developing.

What Is The Problem To Be Solved?

Every time a person is arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime, this event is memorialized in the person’s criminal record, setting off thousands of potential punishments and discriminatory treatments in employment, housing, voting, professional licensing, and civic life. These records and punishments often continue for years even when the underlying activity has been decriminalized, time has been served, or the person was never convicted in the first place. While laws on the books provide second chance relief, deficiencies in their administration mean that only a small fraction have gotten the relief to which they are entitled. Our analysis suggests that uptake rates of convictions relief are generally.

As a result, tens of millions of Americans, we estimate, are stuck in a paper prison, denied the freedoms enjoyed by persons without records due to old crimes, charges and arrests that were never convicted, and decriminalized activities. Turning the tide on mass incarceration and mass criminalization requires restoring rights - to vote, to not be unfairly judged by an arrest, or to move beyond one’s past conviction - to the one in three adults that lives with a criminal record.