Opinion | A conservative case for criminal record ‘Clean Slate’ in Michigan

Jesse Kelley is a Government Affairs Specialist and Criminal Justice Manager with the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. Arthur Rizer is the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Director at R Street.

There is some good news in the criminal justice world: According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the nation’s incarceration rate is at a 20-year low. This is to be celebrated for sure, but what do we do with the estimated 70–100 million citizens who have criminal records as a result of a generation-long war on crime?

Certainly some of these millions have records that do not affect their daily lives — jay walking, drinking as a minor, or even low-level drug use, for instance. Yet for an estimated 19 million Americans who have more serious records, these convictions act a scarlet letter of shame that follows them for life. In Michigan alone, some 500,000 individuals wear this mark of ignominy, making it more difficult for them to find housing and earn an honest living, and putting public safety at risk.

One answer to alleviating the effects of damning criminal records is to expand expungement availability in the state. Michigan, with its expanded record-sealing provisions, is ripe for this type of “Clean Slate” initiative. Such a tweak in the law would not only empower those with records to take control over their lives, it would also have the potential to reduce crime and expand the state’s economy.

Presently, Michigan’s expungement process is limited to people who have committed no more than one felony and two misdemeanors during their lifetime. Those who do qualify face a burdensome application process. To have a record expunged, applicants must pay $50 to the Michigan State Police, request an FBI background check, give notice to both the state attorney general and their local prosecutor of their intent to have their record expunged, provide a certified copy of their record, have their fingerprints taken, and pay any costs assigned by the county clerks’ offices.

Though this may seem like a small price to pay for a clean slate, since felony records are usually accompanied by low incomes, many people with criminal backgrounds are forced to weigh paying the fees associated with expungement against buying groceries or paying rent — and obviously, their priorities will likely shift to their immediate needs. However, even for those currently eligible, an estimated 95 percent of people do not apply for expungement.

Clean Slate legislation would make the expungement process easier for those individuals who already qualify under the law by making expungements for certain types of records automatic after 10 years.

A key benefit of this kind of legislation is that it enhances public safety. This is because expungements can reduce recidivism rates. The stigma surrounding those with criminal histories often seeps into employers’ hiring decisions, making them reluctant to give people with criminal records a shot at becoming gainfully employed. Unfortunately, being unable to find stable employment can increase a returning citizen’s chances of reoffending, meaning that employment discrimination against those with criminal histories puts our communities at risk. Yet according to a University of Michigan study, expungement improves an individual’s chances of employment by around 7 percentage points, and their average wages rise about 22 percent.

Improving the employment prospects of those with criminal records would not only make Michigan a safer place to live, it could potentially add millions to the state’s economy — not to mention its tax base. As Margaret Love, a lawyer who serves on the board of the Collateral Consequences Recourse Center, notes, people with records represent “a huge, potentially productive segment of the population that’s being basically taken out of circulation because of having made a mistake at one point in their lives. Integrating this population into the labor market in a fair and constructive way would be a tremendous advantage to our economy.”

Importantly, Clean Slate legislation would include safeguards to avoid undermining public safety. For one, only certain criminal records would be eligible for expungement — criminal sexual misconduct and other more serious offenses would be excluded. Moreover, this legislation would only shield a person’s criminal history from the general public; law enforcement officers and the courts would maintain access to this information. Furthermore, individuals who apply for jobs that inherently require public trust — like police officers or child-care providers — would be screened more thoroughly than other applicants and could still be barred from this type of employment due to their criminal history.

In the interest of both public safety and economic gain, Michigan should seize this opportunity to make its expungement process easier for those with records and therefore more beneficial to the public.

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Kevin Grand
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 7:20am

Calling them "conservative" is a bit of a stretch given their penchant for pursuing the "global warming" boogie-man.

And hiding people's backgrounds only opens the door for legal problems in the future when employers cannot make fully informed decisions regarding any potential employee hiring because they are hidden from public view.

Instead of promoting a "Clean Slate", they should instead be promoting "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time!"

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 10:18am

With bipartisan support of clean slate legislation, this point of view is being swept into the dustbin of history. The times they are a-changing.

Kevin in Waterford
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 8:47am

In Michigan, the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act has saved many offenders under age 21 from having a permanent record because, at one time, the legislators realized that not everyone is “grown up” by age 21.
This is the equivalent to expungement.
To expand Holmes and have a criminal record “clean up” after 5 years, for a single infraction and a single crime, would be helpful.

Jim Bradford
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 8:48am

I am assuming the 10 years is from date of conviction/incarceration, not date of release. Are those eligible to have their records cleared informed of this opportunity before they are released? Could they not begin the process while preparing for release? The 10 year is an automatic expungement. Can the time period be shortened for less severe crimes?

Paul Jordan
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 8:53am

Nobody should be judged for all time based on the worst day in their lives or the stupidest thing they've done.
This sounds like wise legislation.
Another problem with current law is that people can only expunge a single felony conviction. A person can be charged--and convicted--with a number of felonies based on a single criminal act, however. This might mean that if two people have been convicted based on the same kind of criminal act, one person's record might be ineligible for expungement because he was charged with more felonies even though they committed the same criminal act.
This should be changed, as well.

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 10:08am

What was their worst day? Was it the day they got caught, the day they were convicted, the day they went to jail and lost their opportunity to do more harm? Or was all the actions and choices they made leading up to the choice to do harm to others?

I always wonder why it is that all those wringing their hands and making special considerations for those who have chosen to harm others don't consider the criminal have responsibilities such as doing/committing in someway they will not do harm again.

When do advocates ask what are the resistance to hiding what criminals have done in the past and try to address them?

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 2:18pm

My husband was in prison for quite awhile, due to a felony conviction in the 1980s. He came home, went through a difficult time getting a job, finally did get a good job, but is no longer able to work at that job, due to injury from a car accident. Can he start the job hunting process over again at his age? We are beginning to doubt he will ever get another job, despite no work related problems on the job while he has been home. It is mostly due to the felony conviction in his early 20s. He is now 58. Multiply that by all the men who have been in prison and you are talking a lot of people.

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 5:52pm

Need to look at sex crimes list also, there's some real travesties there too. I doubt anything should be automatically permanent.

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 7:27pm

I believe if someone did "their time" or served their punishment, this record should not follow them their entire lives. Although, if they repeat the same crime again after they served their punishment, the previous crime should have some bearing on the severity of the next punishment.

Keith Bruce
Tue, 03/05/2019 - 10:06am

The only difference between most people and those with a criminal record is the fact that the people with a record got caught, not only that, but there are plenty of people with criminal records that wouldn't have them had they been able to afford a decent lawyer. Many got suckered or forced, to use a "public pretender" which is often worse than no lawyer at all. Many take a plea deal because prosecutors pile charges on a defendant to scare them into pleading guilty to a charge they may very well be innocent of.

James Constantine
Tue, 03/05/2019 - 12:33pm

Expunge a felony record? Yet the left is calling for "red flag laws" to take guns away from citizens based on a complaint from anyone who might feel threatened by that citizen and the citizen has no way to address their own defense. Sure, expunge a felon's record, let them then go get a gun. Crazy.

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 11:29pm

Non-violent "sex offenses" - which are in fact the majority - are the most deserving and most in-need of redress. It is entirely inappropriate to exclude them. They should be at the forefront of desperately needed reform.

Sat, 03/09/2019 - 8:11am

Please read and repost Re: 2011 House Bill 4106 (Revise criminal record expungement rules )
Reply Contact
When I first saw mention of this bill, I was rather excited, until I realized it would not apply to me.

I was convicted of 3 felonies in 1994 at the age of 18 (larceny - receiving stolen property - attempted breaking an entering - all from a single incident, 2 of which would not be felonies today, because the law has since changed to require the stolen merchandise be worth more than $1000). I served a 7-year prison term and was released in 2001 at the age of 25. Yes, I spent 7 years in prison for stealing less than $1000 dollars worth of things (how long were the sentences for the executives of Enron???). I paid my debt to society and then some, right?

After being released from prison, I found it was nearly impossible to get a job due to criminal background checks and employers' use of blanket rejections for the various jobs I applied for. After several months searching and living off of my mother's generosity, I was able to secure employment as a roofer, which I did sporadically over the next 3 years, while simultaneously attending Mott Community College through the Pell Grant (remarkably, the Federal Government is not so draconian in its treatment of ex-convicts with respect to education as potential employers are with respect to their menial jobs).

After graduating from MCC with an associates degree and a 4.0 gpa, I went on to Michigan State University. I graduated from MSU with a bachelor's degree in Philosophy with a 3.7 GPA. What was I to do with such a degree??? My experience through those years with the job market taught me that my criminal record would stand in the way of my ever having a decent career, much less a decent job, unless...I made education my career. After all, it was and is the only professional pursuit that seems to be accepting of "my kind".

So, I just kept going. I applied to several graduate schools across the country and was eventually accepted into the University of South Florida's graduate school in Philosophy. Please permit me a brief ironic aside - I was denied an apartment here in Tampa because of my record - My father had to get it in his name, in order for me to live here and attend graduate school here (Apparently, I was trustworthy enough to study and teach here, but I wasn't trustworthy enough to live here!)

Now, 4 years later, I have a Master's degree and I am currently working on my dissertation. I teach Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Sport, Introduction to Philosophy, and Critical Thinking at USF and several other community colleges in the area as an adjunct professor. The ironic thing is that during the summers, I cannot adjunct (because there are far fewer summer courses available to students), so I am forced to look for a regular job - unfortunately, it is STILL nearly impossible for me to secure a regular job, because of my criminal record. 17 years has passed and I am fit to teach students Philosophy at the 8th largest University in the country, but I am not fit to hand money to customers at a bank???

Needless to say, I have not committed any crimes since I was 18. I am very close to obtaining the highest possible professional degree one can achieve in this country. I TEACH ethics, for crying out loud, and yet...

Michigan still brands me an ex-convict, and this bill does nothing for me. While I salute the attempt to get rid of a draconian policy (why is it that only 1 felony can be expunged, and why is it that it seems so important to Michigan lawmakers to maintain that even in this new bill??) and replace it with a slightly less draconian policy, it will do little to help anyone like me, who has spent his entire life trying to outrun mistakes made when he was an 18-year old kid.

The possibility for expungment should be open to anyone with a criminal record, since having a criminal record is the modern version of "the mark of the beast" in the eyes of potential employers. If you want more crime in Michigan, then you are certainly doing the right thing in helping push ex-convicts back to crime by making it impossible for them to get work and provide for themselves or their family.

I am an exception - how many ex-convicts end up getting a PhD in anything? 1 in a million? Has it ever been done in this country? My guess is that it has, but my worry is that I will be the last one to do it.