Understanding Criminal Records



In recent history, the United States has witnessed a general trend of tougher laws and aggressive policing and prosecution which has greatly increased the number of Americans with a criminal  record. Although estimates vary, the United States Department of Justice has indicated that approximately 100 million people, or one in three adult Americans, have a criminal record. (Department of Labor, DIR 2013-02).


In Pennsylvania, criminal charges, including charges that did not result in convictions, are publicly available online. Discrimination based on criminal records creates a significant barrier to employment.  This barrier continues to increase as more employers conduct background checks and dissemination of criminal records becomes digitized.


Expungement is the permanent removal of criminal history record information. Criminal history record information is personally identifiable information including information supplied at the time of arrest, the formal charges brought by the District Attorney’s office, and the disposition of those charges. A court summary or “rap sheet,” an arrest photo, and fingerprint cards are all examples of criminal history record information.

Criminal history record information does NOT include police blotters, press releases, news articles, “Wanted Persons” signs and announcements, or intelligence, investigative, and treatment information created during the course of an investigation.

After an expungement is granted, the prosecutor and central repository are required to maintain a separate list of criminal history record information for the purposes of determining future eligibility for diversionary programs, identifying persons in criminal investigations or determining grading of subsequent offenses. The court may also maintain such a list.

Expungement laws vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, all non-conviction data is eligible for expungement. Convictions are eligible for expungements if:

  • You received a pardon from the Governor for that conviction.
  • You are over 70 and have been arrest-free for last 10 years.
  • The subject of the petition has been dead for 3 years or more.
  • The conviction is a summary offense and you have otherwise been arrest-free for 5 years.

Click the below image to see a flow chart illustrating the creation, dissemination, and destruction of criminal records.


Click on the video below to watch a video on the creation, dissemination, and destruction of criminal records.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What kinds of charges are eligible for expungement in PA?

All  criminal charges that did not result in a conviction are eligible for expungement in Pennsylvania. For example, charges that are not guilty, withdrawn, dismissed, or nolle prossed are eligible for expungement.

Charges that result in the successful completion of a diversionary program, such as ARD or Section 17, are also eligible for expungement.

Q. Can convictions be expunged?

Convictions for summary offenses are eligible for expungement if a person is arrest and prosecution free for five years following the conviction.  A summary offense is a criminal offense ordinarily (but not always), resulting in the issuance of a citation. Common summary offenses include disorderly conduct,  simple trespass, public consumption of alcoholic beverages, and retail theft if it is a first offense and the value of the merchandise is less than $150.

Conviction(s) for a misdemeanor or felony offense(s) is eligible for expungement if

  • The individual is at least seventy years of age and has been arrest and prosecution free for at least ten years, or
  • The subject of the information is deceased for at least three years, or
  • The individual has received a pardon for that specific conviction.

Q. What if my convictions don’t qualify for an expungement?

For all other convictions to be eligible for an expungement, a person must first get a pardon.  For more information about Pardons, click here.

Q. Does a prior arrest or conviction impact my ability to receive Federal Student Financial Aid?

Only criminal convictions on an individual’s criminal record may limit eligibility for federal student aid.  Past convictions that are not drug-related, whether felony or misdemeanor, do not limit an individuals eligibility to receive federal student financial aid. An individual can have drug-related convictions on their record (felony or misdemeanor), and still be eligible to receive financial aid – so long as the offense didn’t/doesn’t happen while receiving financial aid.

Q. Does a drug conviction make me ineligible to receive federal financial aid?

Convictions for a Federal or State drug offense (either sale or possession) do not count for eligibility purposes if the offense occurred during a period of enrollment when the individual was not receiving Federal Student Aid. The federal law only applies to an individual convicted of a drug-related offense during a period of enrollment for which the individual was receiving Federal Student Aid.

Q. Do current laws help you?

If you think you may be eligible for an expungement, click here to get help.

Q. Do you think the eligible charges for expungement should be expanded?

Remember, laws like the ones described above can be changed! For more information about how you can get involved with criminal record reform, click here.

Q. Am I eligible to vote?

Most likely.  Under Pennsylvania law, a person is eligible to vote unless they are currently incarcerated for a felony grade criminal offense or they were convicted of an election related offense within the last four years.  ALL OTHER CRIMINAL OFFENSES DO NOT PREVENT YOU FROM VOTING.

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