On Monday, Oct. 12, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a package of bills to expunge the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents. These bills aim to break down the barriers that follow having a criminal record. An expungement of criminal records will open up many doors for folks who have not been able to obtain a good paying job, housing, and other necessities because of a past mark on their record.
The bipartisan legislation passed the Michigan House last November and passed the Senate in June of this year. It contains a number of bills that will expand the number of folks able to have their record wiped clean. In some cases, it opens up the ability to apply for expungement, and for others the record will be automatically expunged after a certain period of time.
The automatic expungement is likely to be especially useful, as folks will not have to apply to get these records cleared. Misdemeanor convictions will be automatically expunged after seven years, and felonies that don’t involve assault will be cleared after 10 years. Depending on the case, the time frame for eligible expungement is based on either when the sentencing was given or the time served in prison.
Another aspect is the expansion of expungement for marijuana offenses. Marijuana became legal in Michigan in December of 2018 for folks 21 and over. Many people have offenses on their records that would be considered legal now that the substance is legal for recreational use. The process to remove these offenses from one’s record has been long and tedious up until this point, leaving folks to live with convictions on their record that would not be considered a crime today. But under the new law, the process to apply and have those charges cleared is meant to move at a faster pace. After someone applies for the expungement, judges will then have 60 days to move forward with that expungement. Prosecutors can challenge the record clearing for an individual, but that prosecutor will be the one bearing responsibility to bring the evidence for that claim forward (otherwise known as ‘evidentiary burden’).
Advocates are glad to see the legislation, as it is something they have been waiting on for a long time. There is caution, since the past legislation on expungement, though it was technically available to a number of people, was only really accessible for those who had the means to go through the process. They highlight how difficult the process of expungement has been up to this point and how few people actually had the time and resources to begin. But especially with the automatic expungement for certain misdemeanors and felonies, they are hopeful about the relief this will bring to many Michiganders.
There are deep rooted problems within the criminal justice system that are not going to be fixed by a single bill. But while I always feel that more can be done to help those who have had their life turned upside down by the system, it cannot be denied the significant effect this law will have. In Wayne County alone, the number of folks eligible for record expungement will nearly double.
For every expungement there is a life being renewed, given back opportunities they were stripped of. These folks will be able to access housing they would not have beforehand. Wages normally increase when a record is expunged, giving people the ability to feel more financially secure.
I think as well about the impact this will have on families. Parents who are able to now make more money, possibly get another job, move their family to a better home — these things can be life changing. There is an interconnectedness between poverty and the criminal justice system, shown in the ways that people are cut off from fully participating in society if they have a criminal record. Expunging these records not only gives people a clean slate, it can lift people out of the poverty that can come with criminal convictions. Clearing these records is just the beginning in relieving the pains imposed by the criminal justice system.