Michigan bills would make more ex-offenders eligible to hide their criminal pasts
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is proposing sweeping changes to Michigan’s expungement process that would significantly expand who’s eligible to get their criminal history wiped clean from public records.
Proponents of the reform say the current law, which allows people to apply to have one felony conviction or two misdemeanors set aside after five years, is too restrictive. A package of six bills would make the process automatic for some convictions while also opening up expungement to people with multiple felonies and low-level traffic offenses.
Rep. Graham Filler, a DeWitt Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said the package has garnered support from a range of stakeholders, including prosecutors and business leaders.
“I really see this as an opening salvo in expungement reform in the state of Michigan and another step in criminal justice reform here in the state,” he said.
The plan aims to remove barriers to employment for thousands of people. From a public safety standpoint, Filler said expungement strengthens communities because it allows those with criminal records to contribute to society after they’ve paid their debt.
The legislation would affect an estimated 100,000 people in Wayne County, Filler said.
Here are the changes proposed by the six bills:
1. Expand the number of people who qualify for expungement: Under the plan, a person with up to three felonies and any number of misdemeanors could have all their convictions set aside if none were assaultive crimes. Someone with an assaultive crime can have up to two felonies and four misdemeanors set aside. Convictions such as murder and criminal sexual conduct would not be eligible.
2. Automatic expungement for some offenders 10 years after their monitoring by the justice system ends: This would be if none of the convictions are assaultive crimes or serious misdemeanors, and only for convictions that were punishable by less than 10 years imprisonment. It would apply after the person has paid restitution.
3. Allow expungement of marijuana convictions for behavior that would be permissible under current law: Most of these individuals would be eligible to apply for expungement immediately. This process would not be automatic. A different bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would automatically clear misdemeanors involving low-level marijuana use and possession.
4. Allow forgiveness for multiple acts committed during “one bad night”: Convictions for offenses similar in nature that were committed in a 24-hour period would be treated as a single felony if none were assaultive, if none involved the possession of a weapon, and if none carried a maximum penalty of more than 10 years.
5. Allow for the expungement of some traffic offenses: Driving under the influence and traffic offenses causing serious injury or death would not qualify for expungement.
6. Shorten the eligibility period for misdemeanors: Applications to set aside more than one felony could be filed after seven years. A serious misdemeanor or one felony could be expunged after five years. Other misdemeanors with no felonies could be expunged after three years.
Lawmakers plan to unveil the package Monday during two news conferences scheduled in Detroit and Kalamazoo.
Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, is sponsoring the bill that would treat crimes committed during “one bad night” as one felony for expungement purposes. She introduced similar legislation in 2017 and said she’s confident about making progress this time around.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “You have Democrats, you have Republicans. The leadership has signaled support for this, otherwise we wouldn’t be this far down the road.”
The sponsors of the other bills are: Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Rep. Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale; Rep. Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville; Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor; and Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Bainbridge Township.
William Vailliencourt, the Livingston County prosecutor and president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said the association worked with legislators on the package and broadly supports it.
“We know there’s people who have turned their lives around,” he said, “and expunging some of these convictions lets them get good jobs and be productive citizens.”
Lawmakers will be joined in Detroit on Monday by Mayor Mike Duggan, who provided insight from the city’s work on the Project Clean Slate initiative, a program that offers free expungement help to Detroit residents.
JustLeadershipUSA, a national nonprofit that advocates for policy changes to reduce the prison population, hosted town halls across the state this year to gather input from people who would benefit from broader expungement laws. The group said advocates are disappointed with the bill package in part because they feel it is too limiting on who would qualify for automatic expungement.
“We stand in solidarity with community members and their demands, including automating set-asides for all misdemeanor convictions after five years (including traffic offenses) and expunging felonies through a matrix based on seriousness,” Hakim Crampton, Michigan statewide organizer for JustLeadershipUSA, said in a statement.
Xavier Owens, 31, attended one of the JustLeadershipUSA’s recent meetings in Detroit. He’s not eligible for expungement under the current law because he has several traffic offenses, but he could have a chance under the proposed bills.
Owens’ license was suspended because of a felony fleeing and eluding conviction at age 21. After, he drove without a license to get to and from his job and as a result, he racked up four misdemeanor traffic offenses, he said.
Owens said his criminal record has precluded him from jobs, housing and volunteer programs. He works for a car rental company and aspires to work in technology, but he hasn’t found an employer in the sector who will look beyond his record.
“I made a mistake at a younger age and it’s still affecting me,” Owens said. “It literally seems like there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
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