Bipartisan ‘Clean Slate’ criminal expungement bills get House hearing

By: - September 24, 2019 8:35 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Members of the Michigan House Judiciary Committee convened Tuesday to hear testimony on a series of bipartisan bills that would expand access to Michiganders who seek to have their criminal offenses expunged.

“I think today, we could be making one of the most significant efforts in generations to help our fellow citizens gain fuller participation in our common life,” said state Rep. Eric Leutheuser (R-Hillsdale), sponsor of HB 4980.

The current expungement process, according to speakers at the hearing, is costly, tedious and ridden with obstacles. Their legislation seeks to change that process for Michiganders and make it easier for those with past criminal convictions to move forward with their lives.

Leutheuser’s “Clean Slate” bill would ensure certain convictions are automatically set aside, or expunged, after 10 years in certain circumstances.

Eric Leutheuser

Right now, Leutheuser said, getting a fresh start free from points and convictions on your criminal record involves “a series of ifs and maybes.” With automatic expungement after a set period of time, a violation like a traffic ticket would then “fall off” a person’s driving record. There would be no need to petition the secretary of state over a few points years after the traffic ticket occurred, Leutheuser said.

State Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) testified in support of his bill, HB 4984, which would allow a larger variety of non-violent offenses to be expunged. LaGrand said that as a lawyer of 19 years, something like “90%” of clients who called his office seeking expungement for their offenses were not eligible to do so.

“Right now in Michigan, when you have three misdemeanor convictions, you are out of luck. … If you have two felonies, you are out of luck. Doesn’t matter whether you’re an 85-year-old grandmother. You can’t get your record cleaned out,” LaGrand said.

Beyond that, the cost alone for engaging in the process is a huge barrier to many people, he said, adding that it’s disproportionately challenging for poorer Michiganders to expunge past offenses from their record.

David LaGrand

In short, poor people are effectively punished twice, LaGrand said.

“Let’s say you were one of the lucky 10% that were eligible. Then the question boiled down to [whether] you have $1,500, because that’s how much it costs,” he said. “… So we have a very narrow door, and a very costly process.”

LaGrand and his co-sponsors hope that reforming the current expungement mechanisms would not only open the door for more people to move forward and contribute to society, but would also make the public safer by narrowing the risk of reoffense.

Lawmakers cited studies finding that offenders are less likely to reoffend if they have better access to opportunities like employment – opportunities that are much more difficult to lock down if you have points on your license or an old criminal offense on your record.

This is exactly why labor unions support this push for better expungement access, said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit).

Bipartisan expungement press conference in Detroit, Sept. 9, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“The UAW, the Carpenters, Laborers Local 1191 and SEIU all are in support of making sure that we get returning citizens into the workforce,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

“I’m here to advocate for thousands of Michiganders who have already taken responsibility for their mistakes in the past, but who will face difficulties with getting their lives back on track today. Many of those with past convictions are prevented from expunging their records and getting a fresh start.”

Gay-Dagnogo’s bill, HB 4985, would allow multiple non-violent felonies arising out of the same criminal event — “one bad night,” as she said — to be considered as fewer offenses when expungement is being pursued.

“Increasing eligibility by allowing Michiganders to consolidate their conviction makes it easier on the person applying for expungement to streamline the process and get our residents back on track for success much quicker,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

She added that based on the estimation of Detroit officials, 133,000 people in Wayne County alone could become eligible for expungement if the bill package is enacted.

Other House members testifying in support of the legislation included state Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville), whose HB 4982 would modify the expunction process for certain marijuana-related offenses; state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), who introduced HB 4983 to amend the time period an expungement applicant must wait in order to set aside a conviction; and state Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), whose HB 4981 would allow a person who does not possess a commercial driver license to have certain traffic offenses be expunged from their record.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.