TRAVERSE CITY — Confusing, cumbersome and time-consuming — the path to a clean slate comes with a slew of hurdles.
The hassle, fees and red tape keep many Michiganders from pursuing criminal record expungements that offer a second chance at life, a 2019 University of Michigan study shows.
Only a “discouragingly low” 6.5 percent bother — and end up succeeding — within five years of becoming eligible, the research shows.
“Michigan’s process is quite reticulated, it’s difficult. People are often uncomfortable or confused, and there’s not a lot of help to be had,” said J.J. Prescott, a UM law professor and one of the study’s two authors. “It’s not surprising that many people who are actually eligible for expungement don’t follow through, even when it makes a big difference in their lives.”
In essence, it prolongs a punishment meant to end once one leaves the criminal justice system, he said.
“While we’ve told somebody they’ve done their time and it’s time for them to readjust to the community, we strip them of the resources to do so because we hold their criminal record over their head,” said Kimberly Buddin, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan policy counsel.
Paul Jarboe, a local defense attorney, walks a few clients through expungement each month. He said the legal hoops to jump through often are too convoluted and stop applicants from following through. Without expungement, his clients are prevented from certain employment and government benefits.
“Things people without a criminal conviction take for granted,” Jarboe said.
The complex process — to be undertaken no sooner than five years after completing probation, parole or incarceration — begins with a visit to the courthouse for a copy of the original conviction. That, along with an application from the State Court Administrative Office, must be notarized and paired with a set of fingerprints and mailed to the Michigan State Police, state attorney general and prosecutor of the county of sentencing.
Then it’s a waiting game.
In a month or two — or three — MSP will complete a background check and make sure there are no pending warrants or new crimes. If that checks out, a hearing before the judge who handled the case will decide the matter’s fate.
About 75 percent of applicants are successful, Prescott found, and Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said local cases line up with that trend. She sees about 10-15 applications annually for misdemeanor expungements. Requests on felonies, which place a larger strike on one’s record, come in a couple times per month.
Felonies are more difficult to expunge than misdemeanors, Moeggenberg added. It requires an applicant to prove their worth to the judge, often by showing they’ve worked to better themselves since their last visit to court.
“They’ll look for such things as what has the person been doing — have they gone to work? Gone to school? Been serving their community and stayed out of trouble?” Jarboe said.
Generally, up to one felony or two misdemeanors can be expunged, barring traffic offenses, some assaultive crimes and some violent offenses.
The daunting task is a turnoff for many, but Buddin says it’s well worth the effort.
“These are things that show up when they go in to apply for a job, or get housing, or other types of public assistance, and those are really important parts of reintegrating into society,” Buddin said.
An expungement allows one to answer “no” to questions of convictions and criminal records on job applications and strikes the information from public record, meaning they can vote, more successfully apply for housing and reenter certain assistance programs.
Prescott’s study shows that an expungement boosts one’s wage prospects by an average 25 percent. His paper cites another study showing that, in a survey of employers who asked about criminal history, applicants with clean records netted 63 percent more callbacks than their record-carrying peers.
It’s something Jessica Willis, Networks Northwest’s Offender Success program community coordinator, knows well.
She spends her days helping hundreds of record-toting northern Michigan residents find work and housing each year.
“Using that (record) as a litmus (in hiring) can absolutely be a barrier formerly incarcerated people have to overcome,” Willis said. “It is going to be slightly more difficult to get these higher paying jobs out of the gate. But, once they’re in and they’re able to prove themselves, there’s opportunity.”
Prescott said the “knee-jerk reaction” some employers have when they see a conviction is not to hire that person — even though such a judgment can be illegal.
“It ends up really distorting the labor market,” he said.
Those eligible for expungement tend to be a solid investment, he added. His research shows that people who earn a clean slate tend to keep it that way.
“Having people unemployed, having them living in bad housing, it’s not only bad for them but it’s really bad for everybody, because those people are much more likely to return to crime,” Prescott said. “Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, clearing records reduces recidivism in the long run.”
Those eligible for set-asides are already a low-risk population because they’ve gone so long without a new offense, he added. But Prescott’s research shows second chances prove a powerful motivator.
“I think there’s a personal relief, knowing that chapter in their life is now closed,” Jarboe added. “I find that they walk a little taller and stand a little straighter, hold their head up high.”
More could experience it under a bill package recently championed through Michigan’s House of Representatives. The bipartisan, heavily-backed effort would patch some holes in the state’s original expungement law of the 1960s, expanding eligibility to more offenses and increasing how many convictions can be wiped.
That package — House Bills 4980 to 4985 and 5120 — awaits review by the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. An “OK” would move it to the Senate floor for further discussion and, potentially, a vote.
The bills, which Buddin and Prescott call promising, would automatically expunge certain felonies after 10 years and up to four misdemeanors after seven years.
It would also expunge past marijuana offenses invalidated by Michigan’s recreational legalization and, for record-clearing purposes, consider multiple charges stemming from the same incident one conviction. Certain traffic offenses would also become eligible, save for drunk driving and offenses causing injury or death.
“At what point do we let people say, ‘You know what, you’ve done your time, we need to move forward?’” said Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann. “We are letting people get on with their lives after they’ve paid their debt to society.”
Moeggenberg agrees the statute could use some adjusting — other revisions in past decades have helped, including a 2017 expansion — but cautions too far a swing.
“Expungement is something people should work for — not necessarily pay a lot of money or go through a big hassle for — but it means a lot when somebody keeps their record clean for five years, and then can come back to the court,” she said. “They’re hearings I enjoy doing and I think the judges enjoy doing, because it’s a happy thing. It’s someone who’s really worked hard and turned their lives around.”
She worries automatic expungements, especially for violent offenses like domestic violence and thought-out crimes like embezzlement, would make it more difficult to hold people accountable.
Certain crimes, like drunk driving and sexual assaults — not currently eligible for expungement — should stay off the list, Moeggenberg added, with Jarboe seconding the sentiment. Case-by-case review, she says, is a vital part of the process.
“At least locally, it takes a lot for someone to get a felony,” Moeggenberg said. “Usually, they’ve done something pretty horrible or they’ve been given multiple chances.”
Buddin and Prescott disagree — automating expungements still require a clean record for several years and open up new chances for people who’ve already been punished.
“If somebody’s got a decades-old conviction, that has nothing to do with who they are today and who they will be in the future,” Buddin said. “We really should commit to giving people second chances.”