Michigan’s new expungement laws offer second chance

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Julia Elkins wants to go on school field trips with her daughter like other parents, but felonies from almost a decade ago related to her drug addiction will keep her ineligible unless she gets her criminal record expunged under new laws in Michigan that took effect this month.

Seven years of sobriety, a good job, a house and the transformative hard work it took to build a good life isn’t enough when she has to check “yes” next to the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box on housing, school, job and other applications, Elkins said.

“Because I have this record and I have this past, even though it’s been seven years and I haven’t touched a thing and I haven’t been in trouble, they look at my record and because of this thing, I can’t do anything with her,” Elkins said. “I can drive separate to be with my daughter, but me and my daughter have to stay away from everybody else and do our own thing.”

Elkins and her fiance are among the hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents convicted of felonies who are seeking reprieves so they can have more opportunities. According to the Michigan attorney general, as many as 1 million people could be eligible for expungement under the new laws.

Supporters of the legislation that expanded eligibility for expungement say once people have paid their debt to society and are working to create a better life, the state ought to create opportunities for them to succeed.

Expansions under the “Clean Slate” laws include eligibility for up to three felonies and unlimited misdemeanors, excluding certain assault or weapons offenses and felonies that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Many traffic offenses will be eligible for expungement, but operating while intoxicated or traffic offenses that caused injury or death are not.

Those with marijuana-related misdemeanors can apply for expungement if their offenses would have been legal when recreational use was approved in 2018.

Helping people get jobs and housing after they’ve served their sentence is in society’s best interest, said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, which advocates for policies in safety and justice. It reduces the likelihood a person will reoffend and ultimately reduces future victimization, he said.

“If you look at the the main avenues for social mobility in our society, whether it be post-secondary education, access to business loans, occupational licensing, obviously housing and employment, all of those different areas require a person to check a box about their criminal record, and if you do check that box, you’re unlikely to be able to obtain the benefit you’re looking for,” Cooper said.

A University of Michigan study in 2020 found that in the first year after expungement a person’s wages improve by about 23%, and women and Black recipients’ reap higher wage increases than their white male counterparts.

That same study estimated that only 6.5% of people who meet the legal requirements for expungement in Michigan get their record cleared in the first five years of eligibility.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recognized the need to help more eligible people seek expungement and created Project Clean Slate in 2016 to provide free legal help to city residents interested in clearing their records.

The office normally gets 1,500 to 2,000 applications for expungement a year, said Stephani LaBelle, supervising attorney of the project. This year they’ve already received 6,000 applications because of the new rules.

Labelle said she worried that high demand would create delays that would upset or discourage people, but applicants are eager to reclaim their lives.

“A lot of these people have waited 30, 40 years so they figure, ‘What’s another year’,” LaBelle said.

A huge reform to Michigan’s expungement laws won’t start until April 2023 when Michigan will begin an automatic expungement system where certain misdemeanors will be cleared seven years after a person’s sentence and certain felonies will be cleared after 10 years.

Elkins’ fiance, Adam Spence, hopes to apply for expungement soon so he can ride the bus with his daughter for field trips and not feel like ’the outcast family.” He said he’s been sober for seven years and after getting treatment for his drug addiction and has worked hard to become a valued employee at his job.

But being a felon lingers as a second punishment after serving time, Spence said. Expungement after all these years would be a game changer.

“When time passes and you do what you’re supposed to do, and you continue to do what you’re supposed to do, I think it’s a great idea,” Spence said. “Everybody deserves a second chance, I think, you know, maybe, maybe a third.”

Elkins got the chance she needed when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter. She said she had lost everything and was viewed as trash for all she had done during her addiction. It was hard to earn her life back, but she put her head down and “did the damn thing”.

Having raised herself as a kid as her father also struggled with addiction, Elkins said she is determined to be there for her daughter and do the work of seeking expungement.

“I’m not trying to brag at all,” Elkins said. “I’m freaking proud of myself, like I went from eating out of dumpsters to having a beautiful three bedroom home. Everything in it is brand new and I have a good job, I have a decent car, and I have a family like I’m so glad.”

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Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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