Opinion | 'Clean Slate' should simplify, not complicate, expungement process

Jesse Kelley is government affairs and criminal justice and civil liberties manager at the R Street Institute.  Nila Bala is associate director of criminal justice and civil liberties at R Street. 

“Can I have a do-over?” Every kid asks this question when they’ve made a mistake. Yet as we age, it seems that society becomes less willing to give grace to those asking for a second chance. Fortunately, the Michigan Legislature has introduced a group of bills aimed at answering that oft-asked question with a resounding “yes.”

The state’s Clean Slate legislative package includes bills aimed at providing a second chance for those with criminal records. One of the most important bills in the package proposes creating a mechanism to automatically clear some criminal convictions after 10 years. If this bill is passed, tens of thousands of Michiganders would automatically receive expungements. Automating the expungement process for those who are eligible will enhance their ability to find work and to make them more likely to become productive, law-abiding members of society. 

Currently, Michigan’s expungement process is only available to people with no more than one felony and two misdemeanors on their record. It is also both confusing and costly — in fact, one of the witnesses at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, Rep. David LaGrand, testified that it cost his clients $1,500 to employ his services and file for an expungement. Because of these factors, only 6.5 percent of those eligible actually apply. 

Under House Bill 4980, the automated expungement process would not be initiated until after a person has been free from crime for 10 years, starting when they complete their sentence. When a person has completed all the requirements associated with incarceration or community supervision and has remained crime-free for a decade, clearing their record automatically is good policy. 

Automatically expunging the records of these individuals would increase their chances of gaining and maintaining employment. Studies have shown that the presence of a criminal record dramatically reduces job opportunities. Indeed, a person with a clean record is 63 percent more likely to receive an interview than a person who has a criminal history. Yet as University of Michigan Professor Sonja Starr highlighted during the committee hearing, people who have had a criminal record cleared are 11 percent more likely to secure employment and 22 percent more likely to see an increase in income than those who have not.

But why is increasing access to employment important for those with criminal records?

The fact is that helping justice-involved individuals find work will give them a better chance at becoming law-abiding members of society. This, in turn, promotes greater public safety. Multiple studies have found that when people with a record can find good work and a place to live, they are less likely to commit future crime. In fact, as Professor Starr explained, these individuals actually have a lower risk of committing future crimes than those in the general population. 

It is true that a few worries have been raised about the bill. During the committee hearing, Attorney General Dana Nessel voiced concern that an automated system would open the state up to civil lawsuits if the automation was not successfully executed. The president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Bill Vailliencourt, also articulated concerns about out-of-state convictions being overlooked or not adequately expunged through an automated process, since such a process would lack a “human element.” 

But both of these arguments are not unique to automation. For one, the current human-run system is also prone to error. Furthermore, even in the current system, individuals have to apply out-of-state to address issues that originate in other jurisdictions. Automation would not change either concern. 

The fact remains that individuals who have kept their criminal records clear for several years after serving a sentence are unlikely to re-offend, but the hiring policies of many employers continue to unnecessarily punish people for decades. Fortunately, Michigan is on the precipice of moving meaningful legislation that would grant thousands of Michiganders a second chance. Automating the expungement process is the most powerful step that the Legislature could take in this direction. And if its passage is accompanied by the passage of other bills in the Clean Slate package, the Great Lakes state would emerge as a leader for other states to follow in helping their own citizens get a “do-over.”

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Larry Socie
Sun, 10/27/2019 - 9:17pm

Here in Jackson we just ran our second expungement fair. On a Saturday morning nine non-profits, led by Executive Directors of United Way, Community Action Agency, Legal Services, and Prosecutors office and a team of twenty volunteers open the doors of Michigan Works and received one hundred + guests who were looking to clean their records. We did the entire process - from educating folks on requirements; to computer verifying their records; to fingerprints; to reviewing their situation with the prosecutor's office. We even paid for the clerk's records at the city hall and the State police records.

Poverty is not inevitable. It has causes and if you correct those causes it will go down.

One of those causes is not having a living wage. When the state blocks people from getting a living wage that is cruel and vindictive. Of what use is it to landlords if their tenants can't pay rent or hospitals that have to give away their services. If residents have to choose a food pantry because Krogers is too expensive. It all hinges on jobs and the State is standing the way.

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 10:24am

I apologize for asking this question[s] of you, but the history on Bridge is that the writers of articles rarely get engaged with the questions or comments attached to their articles so I have no expectations that either Ms. Kelly or Ms. Bala will make any response and being in the process of reconsidering my thinking on 'expungement'.
Why should the actions of an individual be expunged, especially those that have exceeded the threshold of severity that required official government [court] actions? My wonder about this maybe because in my youth teachers emphasize responsibility, 'it will go on you permanent record'. That reinforced my parent's teaching about being responsible for your actions.
Today we are seeing allegations of individual's actions or situations in their youth being spread across the media with the claim that they must be held accountable. We are seeing young people posting pictures and comments online that seem to never go away, effectively holding them accountable for a lifetime for their choices. All of this creates a consequence for the people whose choices are made public.
With a culture that is so engaged in finding and publicizing the choices of people, why should the legal system be force to remove official records about past actions? The media and the public goes into an uproar if there is a suggestion that official government records in all parts of the government are expunged, so why should we go against that public desire for transparency of official memory?
We hear the importance of personal history when seeking a job, why shouldn't a perspective employer be able to know the whole of a person's history rather than just what the person wants to promote?
Why should anyone, living in 'wealth' or in 'poverty', not be accountable for their choices, why shouldn't individuals take ownership for what they have done and explain why and especially how they have learned from such actions? The courts and society seem to want honesty and transparency and yet isn't expungement promoting hiding the uncomfortable, justifying omissions/distortions of person history, and if ask lying about person actions?
Aside from making it easier on those whose history could be expunged, who benefits and how by hiding the facts?

middle of the mit
Mon, 10/28/2019 - 11:02pm


I would also like the authors to respond to posts more than they do, but their main job is reporting. And it takes me an awful lot of time myself to show you that scientists DO KNOW WHAT CAUSES GRAVITY and yet you still think of it as magic! And yet you want your opinions to be taken seriously. Maybe there is a reason they don't take your opinions seriously? You still think that facts aren't facts and truths aren't truths. You still don't believe after 10 years of medical cannabis and a full 10 months of recreational use, and NO reports of fatalities, causalities or injuries as proof your "perception" still has MERIT.

Yeah, I am going to go with that as a reason that Bridge is allowing me to deal with you.

Did you go to a public or private school? And if you went to a public school, didn't your teachers do you good by teaching you that? My teachers taught me the same thing. Didn't stop a lot of the kids from being the class clown, or smart arse. And if your parents did such a good job of raising you, why are you blaming teachers for kids not learning? Isn't that the parents fault? Talk to to a teacher. They will tell you the challenges they encounter. But they don't need representation. They are just supposed to be teachers, counselors, and protectors willing to put their life on the line to protect the kids they teach while the parents tell them they are ungrateful for the wage they receive.

Why aren't the children listening to their parents when it comes to what kids post on line? Aren't parents supposed to BE THE MAIN educator in THEIR KIDS lives? And yet you are putting the blame on the teachers, who you said did a good job for you. Hmm.

And why do you only pose questions instead of resolutions?

Same reason I do. Except the questions I pose are to ask questions why anyone should ever listen to any conservative idea.

Tax cuts for the USA, means the rest have to deal with Austeritay!

Sonny Perdue said it! And Mike Shirkey says we need to return to gravel roads! In the Wealthiest Country the World has EVER KNOWN.

Wealth DOES NOT TRICKLE DOWN. If you feel trickle down? Check out the color of the liquid you are feeling!

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 8:11pm

I went to public school, and that is where I learned it is what the student does determines learning not the teachers. The teachers that had the most impact on my learning were the ones who triggered a desire in me to do the homework, to practice, to apply what they had taught. What I saw was the same kids did better than the rest of us no matter the teacher, we knew they would do well before the school year began because we knew they would sacrifice doing the homework, and the rest of us would do less well because to varying degrees we would do less homework. The farther we progressed in school the more the student determined their academic success, doing homework became more critical to learning.
I could only guess at why other people’s kids act as they do, but I place a lot of weight on the trust and how it has been built. The earlier parents can give kids responsibility and how they hold them accountable the sooner the kids and parents learn to trust each other and the more they listen to each other and support each other. With trust the parents evolve from boundaries into guides, and the children use their parents rather than their peers as the test for their actions.
To the best of my understanding, why and when someone will put their life on the line for another is a very person thing, I expect it has to do with environment/culture and situation. In any case it is a very encompassing decision that maybe made in a matter of moments and will have to be lived with for a lifetime or the lifetime of others. It can’t be any easy for someone who works in an environment that is likely to create such situations or one that has no reason to believe they will ever have to confront such a choice. I save the proclaiming of hero for those that make such a choice.
I ask questions rather than give answers because I want to hear the conversation and learn knew perspectives and test such perspectives in my thinking and to hear new ideas or new spins to ideas. I also use questions to try to minimize people digging in deeper to defend a position. Questions and better yet the right questions do three things; it creates a pause in the conversation and a pause in thinking [it allows emotions to be interrupted], it breaks down walls by encourage people to let go of established thinking and consider the question [possibly from a new perspective], and it opens up minds to the response of others [who are going through the same disruption of reacting]. Pick a something you have strong feelings/answers to and let me offer three different ways to ask a question about it and see if any of the effects I mention happen.
I don’t fear listening to ideas; I want to find that kernel in the idea that can be used and built on. I have built my ideas a ‘brick’ at a time, I have had them pushed back on in some extreme ways, I have even taken down some of those ‘bricks’ to replace them with different ones, I have not been afraid of adapting so I don’t feel at risk hearing different ideas, different perspective [I look forward to it].
What are the conservative ideas that are so disappointing to you and I will offer how I view them to see if I am a ‘conservative’ [I have heard that I am from others].
I live on one of the very few ‘gravel’ roads [it is part of an actively used public parking area in my City. But gravel would be inappropriate for the use we put our roads to, but if you have been driving in the farming areas of Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas dirt roads are fine for the equipment they are driving on them at low speeds. Gravel roads between Jackson and Ann Arbor wouldn’t be that effective, but get outside of Hillsdale they should be fine.
Trickle down is simply a political catch phrase that people have tried to make into an economic principle. However, it is the people who spend their money that feed [money the life blood of] organizations whether for profit or not for profit. Money is the clearest and most common metric for accountability.