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.