In many cases, the secondary consequences of a criminal conviction can far outweigh the original punishment. Long after you’ve paid your fines or served your time, a conviction on your record may limit where you can live, work and volunteer. Because convictions can get in the way of life, your criminal record might even make it harder for you to reach your full potential.
This is why, once you become eligible, it’s almost always a good idea to get your conviction vacated or your records sealed. These actions can block most landlords and potential employers from discovering your conviction. And those are just the initial benefits. The long-term benefits can be enormous.
The rules for expungement in Washington state
People often use “expungement” loosely as a catch-all term for any method of making criminal records unavailable to the public. However, as a technical term, expungement refers to the destruction of physical records. This is not currently a possibility for people convicted as adults in Washington, but you might pursue other means of removing your records from public view.
The most effective means the law currently provides may be to get your conviction vacated. Then you can have your records sealed. This allows people to clear their records of a wide range of convictions, including:
- Misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors: Provided you have kept your record clean for at least 3 years after completing your sentence and paid all fines. You must not have any outstanding charges, recent convictions in other states or active restraining orders. Some DUIs, violent convictions and sex-related convictions are not eligible.
- Marijuana convictions: Most convictions are eligible, provided you were 21 or older at the time of the offense.
- Felonies: After your discharge, if you have no new charges pending, you can ask the court to vacate most convictions. Certain DUI and violent offenses cannot be vacated, nor can convictions that would prevent you from working with children or vulnerable adults. You must also keep your record clean of additional convictions for a set period of time. The time depends on the level of your original conviction.
- Juvenile offenses: Different rules apply to juvenile offenses. Many of them become eligible for sealing once you turn 18. But you may need to take action and not assume sealing will happen automatically.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that you might have a criminal record even if you won your case or saw the charges dropped. Any arrests would still show on your criminal record. Washington allows you to get these records cleared so long as the mandatory time has passed and you’ve kept your record clean of additional charges.
The benefits of a clean record
Once you’ve vacated and sealed your conviction, it will no longer show on your official record. That means it won’t appear on the background checks your potential landlords or employers might conduct. You are legally free to say that you have no past convictions and can check “NO” on any form that asks.
The result is that you shake off the shackles of your past. Your future opens up, and you set yourself up for greater success. In fact, a 2019 study found that Michigan convicts who expunged their records saw their wages rise an average of 25 percent over the course of three years. That means you can expect the work you do to clean your record to be a sound investment in your future finances and dignity.