In Michigan, many people with criminal histories face significant barriers to success in the community. A criminal record presents challenges to obtaining employment, safe and stable housing, and to access to credit and post-secondary education.
A recent report by the Prison Policy Institute found that 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are looking for work and cannot find a job – higher than the peak unemployment rate during the Depression. Unemployment among people on parole in Michigan is even higher — an estimated 67 percent — when the statewide unemployment rate is about 4 percent.
One critical way to address all these issues is through expungement of public records of one or more convictions. Expungement is also referred to as “set aside” or “sealing”.
Michigan’s expungement statute, MCL 780.621, permits people to apply to set aside the public record of certain convictions after five years have passed since the end of their sentence. Law enforcement retains a private conviction record of people who complete the expungement process.
Many people with criminal records are unable to use this mechanism to lay the groundwork for a genuine second chance for success in the community. Michigan’s expungement law is problematic in a number of ways.
First, this law is too narrow. The law only permits people with no more than one felony or two misdemeanors to apply to set aside a conviction. Many people have criminal records that exceed these limits — often from old convictions or multiple charges arising out of a single episode. In addition, convictions for traffic offenses and for serious crimes (e.g. criminal sexual conduct) cannot be expunged.
Second, the application process is complicated, technical and not widely understood. To set aside a conviction, one must obtain a certified public record of the conviction and file it in court with a sworn statement that conforms to the eligibility requirements in the statute. The applicant must also submit a copy of their application to the state police with a set of fingerprints and a $50 application fee. The cost and complexity of the process presents challenges to many people who could benefit from it, and many simply aren’t aware of the process, whether they are eligible or how to apply.
Expanding eligibility and simplifying the process would have significant benefits to the people of Michigan. A working paper published by researchers at the University of Michigan recently found that people who have had a conviction set aside are 11 percent more likely to be employed and see a 22 percent increase in income.
Thousands of Michiganders with criminal histories are currently denied a chance for a fresh start, and we want to change that. In the coming months and into next the next legislative session, Safe & Just Michigan will be supporting a number of reforms designed to expand access to expungement and improve the expungement process. We hope you agree that these reforms are good for the state of Michigan and will help us get them done.