For people who have been incarcerated, re-entering society can be staggeringly difficult. It’s a transition made all the more challenging by the pervasiveness of online background checks, which can cause roadblocks for people looking for a job, trying to rent an apartment, or hoping to go back to school.

Several states have quietly moved to make it easier for people who have done their time to return to society without the cards stacked against them. In September, California passed the most sweeping “Clean Slate” initiative yet. The state will now permanently and electronically seal most felony convictions after a person completes their sentence, following a four-year period without an arrest. Records of arrests that don’t result in convictions will also be automatically sealed.

But what is the proper balance between allowing people a second chance and making sure that potential employers are able to make judgements about the record and character of their applicants?

California’s law, SB731, is not without its limits. Schools — public, charter, and private — would retain the ability to access the records of their applicants. So, too, would certain law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. Registered sex offenders are excluded altogether from the legislation, and those convicted of “serious” and “violent” crimes (which range from rape and murder to “any robbery”) would have to petition a court to have their records sealed.

But even with those exceptions, the new law would automatically seal the records of at least 225,000 formerly incarcerated Californians, according to an estimate by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform organization. Up to one million more Californians would be able to petition the courts for record clearance.

“This is not an uber-progressive bill,” Jay Jordan, the CEO of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, told Vox. “We worked heavily with folks who don’t necessarily share our vision, the licensing agencies, the DOJ, it went through the rings of fire.”

California is just one of a host of states that have passed automatic record-clearing laws. Since 2018, Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, and Delaware have also moved to clear certain prior felony offenses.

But there are also critics of the “Clean Slate” movement, on both the Left and the Right. The Peace Officers Research Association, California’s largest law enforcement labor organization, came out against the bill, saying in a statement that it “place[s] our communities at risk” and gives “violent criminals … less deterrent to commit another crime.”

Meanwhile, some advocates on the Left have argued that the California bill doesn’t go far enough to eradicate the existing inequalities in the criminal justice system.

What do you make of the “Clean Slate” movement? How should lawmakers think about balancing the interests of redemption and public safety? Write to us at