TRAVERSE CITY — Thousands of Michigan residents have their chance at a second chance under “Clean Slate” laws pushed forth by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — and local officials say it’s a chance worth taking.
The statutory shift means misdemeanors will be automatically expunged — removed from one’s public record — seven years after sentencing, with felonies handled the same 10 years after sentencing or the end of a sentence. Supporters of the change say the change allows Michigan residents to better seek employment, apply for housing and access previously off-limits opportunities.
Most of the acts won’t see true impacts for another two-and-a-half years, as infrastructure to do so is established.
New rules also expand available offenses, streamline the process for those still requiring courtroom approval — file with the court that sentenced you, and pending an objection from prosecutors or victims, it’ll be set in stone within 60 days. The rules also include traffic offenses, which before the 2019 legislation were broadly ineligible.
Local Attorney Paul Jarboe said he has guided many through the expungement process. He feels making some automatic will mean more buy-in.
“A lot of people won’t go through the process if they have to go to court, because they don’t have the money to do it, or they’re afraid of the process itself,” Jarboe said. “Anytime you can relieve people of that — the need to go to court — it’s a good thing.”
Drunken driving offenses and those causing injury or death, as well as crimes involving minors, vulnerable elders, assaults, dishonestly (think forgery and embezzlement) and other more serious felonies and misdemeanors are not to be automatically expunged, according to a governor’s office release.
Up to two felonies and four misdemeanors are eligible for automatic expungement, and up to three felonies and any number of misdemeanors can be wiped via an application to the sentencing court.
The seven-bill package, signed into law in early October, passed both the state House and Senate with bi-partisan support.
It’s a great step for Michigan, said Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Chris Gautz.
He said the changes won’t much impact the department’s day-to-day work — as most people aren’t eligible until 5 to 7 years after completing their sentences.
Still, Gautz added, it complements other programs aimed at successful reentry, both within the department and local communities.
“Our entire model of offender success is designed around the goal of not having them commit a new offense — the first step in eventually getting their record expunged, he said.
MDOC has been working with several other state agencies to launch a public awareness campaign to better inform those available. Under the state’s older expungement rules — the new amendments largely go into effect April 11, 2021 — only about 6.5 percent of eligible residents have actually pursued and received expungements, according to a University of Michigan Law School study. The study also points to lower recidivism rates and better job outlooks for that small group.
“If we want a state where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to our society, secure meaningful work, provide for their families, find a home and build their futures, we cannot maintain lifelong barriers for someone based on past mistakes,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said at the laws’ Oct. 12 signing. He accompanied Whitmer at the event, alongside lawmakers and bill supporters.
Under current law the process is far more limited. Those guidelines were passed as Public Act 213 of 1965, and have seen a handful of more minor amendments since.
“It’s a good thing if people are able to clear up past mistakes, and I’ve found that it’s been a boost to their ability to gain employment,” Jarboe said. “It is, in general, a positive thing for people to get on with their lives.”
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg largely shares the sentiment, but feels automatic expungement should only apply to misdemeanor offenses.
“It can be something that’s out of character, (especially if it’s when they’re younger),” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that there’s a process there to have those expunged, and so I think it’s helpful for them, just to have those go off automatically.”
But a felony, she added, begets a rather serious crime or long list of past convictions.
She said that, when a court can formally review an expungement first, it offers the chance to look for signs of real reform and handle them on a case-by-case basis.
“(It) causes me some concern, (especially) where it’s not just, somebody made a mistake — somebody premeditated over a long period of time,” Moeggenberg said. “That’s different than if someone screwed up in a tough spot.”
Fellow Prosecutor Joe Hubbell, of Leelanau County, noted impacts on an offender’s employability and overall life success.
“If they can turn their life around in a good way, they should then have the ability to pursue that and get expungements where appropriate,” Hubbell said.
The bills addressed his concern of restitution — expungements do not free an individual from owed fines, costs and restitution; nor do they allow for resentencing in related convictions. Shot-down expungements are eligible for appeal under the new rules.
The legislation also sees Whitmer fulfill a campaign promise to better address old marijuana convictions, particularly after a 2018 voter referendum legalized recreational use of the drug.
Anyone convicted previously of a crime that the 2018 election would’ve rendered moot can apply for expungement as soon as April 11.
Despite public expungement, some aspects of criminal records are retained for use by the Michigan State Police, FBI and other agencies, according to the law. Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget is tasked with creating that nonpublic record, which is largely at the core of the law’s 2.5-year delay.
Any locals in need of guidance or assistance with re-entry overall can reach out to Networks Northwest — www.networksnorthwest.org — for help.
Find the bills in their final forms, and any other legislation of interest, at www.legislature.mi.gov.