School of Criminal Justice Professor Sarah Lageson has spent years researching how online access to criminal records—including expungements that are granted but not made public for years–can damage lives and perpetuate inequality.

Lageson, an associate processor, is the author of “Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma, Harm and the Harms of Data-Driven Criminal Justice,’’ which in 2021 won an award from the American Society of Criminology. Her research has been used to help shape state policy, such as New Jersey’s Clean Slate bill of 2019, intended to automatically expunge the records of those who haven’t committed an offense in 10 years or been convicted of serious crimes.

But after hearing the stories of people who were impacted by erroneous or decades-old criminal records, often for minor crimes, Lageson decided to help in a more personal way. Last year, she received a degree from Rutgers Law School so she could fight the problem in court.

 “It was a way to bring the research into practice and do the lawyering skills required to do expungement,” said Lageson. “It feels good to take my knowledge and not only apply it in a policy context but  help people more directly. It’s been an amazing opportunity.’’

To that end, she worked as a student with Rutgers Law School’s Expungement Law Project (ELP), which this fall helped prepare a class action lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender against the New Jersey State Police for failing to process nearly 50,000 expungement orders. 

In 2019, the State Police received access to $15 million in taxpayer money to fund swift processing of expungement orders, a move that has had bipartisan support. But residents have waited months, in some cases more than a year, for the State Police to process them. 

 “The backlog has become really egregious,’’ said Lageson.

As a result, potential employers and others who run background checks can learn about someone’s criminal history even after it was approved for expungement. The information can damage their chance to find a  job, housing, financing, and other opportunities.

Through ELP, low-income New Jersey residents can get help to navigate the cumbersome expungement process and clear their records, providing an opportunity for them to restart their lives. Since ELP began in spring 2018, law students have assisted well over 300 people.

When clients receive an expungement order signed by a judge, they are often “elated,’’ said Lageson.  “It feels like the state is forgiving them or acknowledging that what happened was a long time ago and it’s not who they are anymore. It signals to family members that this is the past and it’s validating for their kids to see it,’’ said Lageson.

It’s devastating for them to learn that the expungement isn’t publicly accessible and their past record lingers online, limiting opportunities and impeding their ability to move on. 

The backlog contributes to existing disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system, where Black people make up 59 percent of the prison population and only 19 percent of the population.

 “It shouldn’t increase economic and racial inequalities but the way it’s being implemented means it does,’’ said Lageson. “People who can afford it can hire an attorney to put more pressure on the state to speed up the process. You can hire reputation management companies that can make sure your mug shot doesn’t show up in a search.’’

During her research as a School of Criminal Justice professor, Lageson found that the U.S. is one of the only nations where a long-ago criminal record is used to penalize people this way.

She hopes both her research and her work as a lawyer prompts questions about how America views criminal records and the lasting impact the data can have on people’s lives. 

Although progress has been made nationwide, and especially in New Jersey, with laws to hasten expungements, including arrests for cannabis possession, more change is needed, said Lageson. The real-life consequences are too great.

“People shouldn’t be held back this way,’’ she said.