The General versus Specific Deterrence Effects of Expungements: Experimental Evidence

  • Author(s): Romain Espinosa, Gregory DeAngelo, Bruno Deffains, Murat Mungan, Rustam Romaniuc
  • Posted: 4-2019
  • Law & Economics #: 19-10
  • Availability: Full text (most recent) on SSRN


Expungement mechanisms allow first-time offenders to seal their criminal record. Theory predicts that the stigma of a criminal record can hinder the reintegration of criminals for whom legal activities are less lucrative. In theory, expungements priced at the reservation level can facilitate the reintegration of criminals without making first-time crime more attractive. This paper considers a behavioral perspective and offers experimental evidence about the impact of expungements priced either at the theoretically optimal level, above it or below it. To do this, we set up a laboratory experiment where subjects repeatedly face opportunities to commit crime (take money from another subject). In addition to stochastic formal sanctions – imposed by the experimenter – we introduce endogenously determined social sanctions. In our main treatments of interest, subjects who choose the wrongful action have the opportunity to expunge their record prior to the second stage, thus avoiding social sanctions as long as they do not recidivate. Overall, our experiment shows that, from a general deterrence perspective, it is better to implement expungements at very high prices. We offer an explanation for this result based on the idea that the price of expungements may signal the moral reprehensibility of the offense. There is no effect of expungements on specific deterrence.