Published in Nonprofits

Service organizations look to spread awareness of new expungement laws

BY Sunday, October 25, 2020 01:52pm

Michigan nonprofits operating in the workforce development and housing sectors see a need to raise awareness among clients following new statewide criminal justice reforms.

The “clean slate” bill package signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Oct. 12 features several nation-leading updates to the criminal expungement process, including automatically clearing certain prior convictions of nonviolent misdemeanors and, in some cases, felonies. 

Additionally, these prior convictions have been barriers for people who are seeking housing and employment but get turned away by landlords and employers. 

The legislation had broad support from business, civil rights groups and nonprofit service providers that have seen firsthand the effects on tenants and workers. 

“This is something we think is a long time coming,” said Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. “One of the issues that keeps identifying itself is the difficulty that service providers have in trying to assist individuals who have criminal records.”

The seven-bill package — which the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce called a “top priority, and which was supported by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union — opens Michigan’s relatively narrow and onerous expungement process. It creates an automatic process for expunging certain misdemeanors after seven years and certain non-assaultive felonies after 10 years. For the first time, most traffic-related convictions also are eligible for expungement.

Aligning with the state’s recreational cannabis law passed by voters in 2018 and making good on a campaign promise by Whitmer, the laws create a process to set aside most marijuana convictions that would have been legal as of Dec. 6, 2018. Another bill creates a rebuttal process for marijuana-related expungements that places the burden of proof on prosecutors.

John Cooper, executive director of nonprofit Safe & Just Michigan that for years has advocated for criminal justice reforms, called the state’s existing expungement process “quite narrow” and a “pretty intensive paper-based process” dating back to the 1960s.

“We have known for a long time something had to be done to expand eligibility for the petition process. It’s not serving enough people,” he said, adding that the current process helps a few thousand people a year while hundreds of thousands could benefit under the new laws.

Over the next two years, the state will develop an online system to process automatic expungements. Until then, Cooper’s group plans to work with organizations on the ground to notify people about the law changes.

“We also think it’s going to be important to provide legal support for people,” he said. “Getting the word out and providing people with the resources they need are two major ways service providers can help.”

Lyn Raymond, executive director of the Holland-based Lakeshore Housing Alliance, said the organization’s programs are unlikely to change as a result of the law, although outreach will be key.

“I certainly would imagine we would educate the organizations in our network to make sure everyone is aware of the new legislation and how it might affect the people they serve,” Raymond said.

Economic opportunity

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said at the time of the bill signing that the “clean slate” package is “bigger than criminal justice reform. This is about economic opportunity and full participation in our economy and our society.”

Nationwide, tens of billions of dollars are lost annually from the underemployment of formerly incarcerated people, according to various research. Some studies have documented better wages and jobs as a result of expungement.

“People who have criminal records find that those follow them around,” Hufnagel said. “I think of it as an albatross around their necks.”

This includes one individual from Muskegon who Hufnagel said reached out to the coalition. The individual — who had a criminal record from a decade ago — and his wife were both working full time but were living in a Red Roof Inn. He was repeatedly turned down for an apartment based on his prior conviction.

“That’s a prime example of how people have limited choices when it comes to housing when they do have that criminal record,” Hufnagel said, adding that often the process is formulaic with little dialogue between a potential tenant and the landlord. If the box is checked, they’re immediately turned away and often are unaware of recourse options, for example.

The situation is exacerbated under tight housing markets, he added.

“We’re in a landlord’s market,” Hufnagel said. “We have a very tight housing stock when you think about the number of people applying for units.”

To Hufnagel, these lingering barriers for people who have already been adjudicated and “served their penalty” amounts to a question of fairness.

“To me it is a moral question: How long should people be punished for something that could be as minor as misdemeanor marijuana possession?” he said. “That’s a relatively minor infraction with respect to someone impacting their community. Why do we hold that against people and put them in situations that ultimately will have a negative impact on their quality of life as well as economic viability?” 

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