One of the harder jobs Kamau Sandiford has ever had was telling people that Michigan’s expungement law didn’t allow them to expunge their criminal record. As the staff attorney of Cooley Law School’s Access to Justice Clinic, it was something he used to do often.

Then, Clean Slate happened.

Now, with Michigan’s expungement laws newly expanded, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders could soon see their criminal records expunged, leading to better opportunities in jobs, housing and education. Nothing could make Sandiford — now the Clean Slate Program Manager for Safe & Just Michigan — happier.

“It used to be so limited,” Sandiford said. “One of the hardest things was to tell someone they weren’t eligible for an expungement because they had one felony and three misdemeanors, instead of one felony and two misdemeanors, and because of that one extra misdemeanor, they weren’t allowed to expunge anything. That’s changed with Clean Slate, and it’s one of the biggest benefits I see.”

Helping people expunge records is all Sandiford has done as an attorney since earning his law degree from Cooley Law School in 2014. While other newly minted lawyers might opt to pursue high-dollar, high-power careers, Sandiford always set his intentions elsewhere.

“Public interest found me,” Sandiford said. “I took on that job at the Access to Justice Clinic, and much of it was about community justice — representing citizens. I’ve seen what a tremendous impact getting an expungement can have on people.”

It’s fair to say Sandiford didn’t grow up dreaming of being an expungement lawyer in Michigan. His roots lie in Trinidad and Tobago, an island nation off the coast of Venezuela..

He arrived in West Michigan in 2006 to go to Grand Valley State University. The first year came as a shock, he recalled — especially once the snow started flying.

“It was a cultural difference obviously,” he recalled. “I didn’t know about lake effect snow at all” But he soon caught on to life in Michigan, and found he liked it. “I got into a rhythm where I got used to the environment, and I adapted and I’ve been here since.”

After graduating with a degree in political science, Sandiford pursued an opportunity to continue his studies at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids in 2011. Law school — especially the first year — was intense, he said. But Sandiford graduated  and became licensed as an attorney in 2014.

When he was offered the spot as staff attorney for the Access to Justice Clinic, he took it. He immediately realized how restrictive Michigan’s expungement laws were at the time.

Michigan expungements: A growing opportunity

When Sandiford went to work as an expungement attorney in 2015, Michigan had just expanded its expungement law after the previous amendment to the law  in 2011.

Up to 2011, only someone with a single felony could even apply to have their record expunged. That meant that the common prosecutorial practice of stacking charges — such as adding felony firearm to any case where a gun was nearby — would disqualify someone from an expungement. Even worse, it meant that someone who had incurred a misdemeanor conviction for even something considered minor, such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or disorderly conduct, was also prevented from getting relief through expungement.

By 2011, it had become clear that the expungement law in Michigan was too restrictive, and lawmakers agreed to expand it. They now allowed a felony and two minor misdemeanors committed before a person turned 21 that were punishable by no more than 90 days in jail or a fine of $1,000. However, the expungement law was tightened to disallow the expungement of child pornography.

A few years later, lawmakers realized the new law was still not helpful enough. In 2014 — the year Sandiford graduated from law school —expungement law expanded again to state that convictions discharged through specialty courts, like substance use addiction courts and veterans’ courts, are to be treated as misdemeanors for the purposes of expungements. However, it also stated that a person whose application for expungement had been denied would have to wait three years to reapply, and it added 4th degree criminal sexual conduct, child abuse, felony domestic violence with a prior conviction and human trafficking to the list of convictions that are unexpungeable.

Even with these changes, it was apparent to both criminal justice reformers, many lawmakers, several judges and some prosecutors that many people who had lived many decades crime-free were still being shut out of expungement opportunities. And academics were producing research finding that expungements were, in fact, life-changing.

In 2019, University of Michigan researchers John Prescott and Sonja Starr authored a paper that found that fewer that 6 percent of people who qualified for expungement relief in Michigan were even applying for help. Reasons for the low uptake rate included the confusing legal process and cost barriers, including the cost of fingerprinting and obtaining certified court records. However, once a person did get an expungement, their life often changed dramatically. Within two years of getting their record expunged, people with expungements saw their income rise about 25 percent.

This research — along with the lived experiences shared by hundreds of Michiganders — laid the groundwork to convince the Michigan Legislature to approve Clean Slate, which was signed into law in 2020.  Clean Slate transformed expungement law in Michigan by:

  • Allowing for the expungement of up to three felonies, Allow for the expungement of no more than two assaultive crimes over an individual’s lifetime.
  • Allow for the expungement of an unlimited  amount of misdemeanors
  • For the first time, allows for the expungement of some traffic offenses, such as driving without a license
  • Creating a process to expunge convictions for marijuana offenses that would have been legal under the new recreational use marijuana law
  • Automating the expungement of up to four misdemeanors seven years after the end of their sentences and up to two non-assaultive felonies a decade after their sentences end.

Taken together, the set of seven new laws in the Clean Slate package are expected to bring expungement opportunities to hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t have them before. But the seven bills have many legal exceptions and clauses that are difficult to understand and give rise to many questions.

“Honestly, the new law is pretty complex.” Sandiford said. “I would imagine people have questions about this new law because it is confusing to the lawyers as well. The new law is more expansive but complicated. You really have to evaluate each case.”

A people’s lawyer

Starting his career as an expungement attorney just as Michigan began to increase access to expungements has given Sandiford a unique vantage point to view the legal changes — both as a professional and how they affect the people he helps.

“I saw people convicted of crimes that I didn’t even know were crimes,” Sandiford said. “The impact those convictions would have on their day-to-day life was incredible. They were not able to get the housing that they want or the job that they’re seeking, even though they have a conviction that is 20 years old. There were parents who couldn’t go on a field trip with their children. I really saw it impact people from a particular socio-economic class.”

Even when the law was changed in 2015, expungements remained out of the reach of far too many in Michigan, he said.

“Even though the law had changed, it was still pretty restrictive,” Sandiford said. “An example of that was if you had one felony and three misdemeanors, you would not be eligible to expunge any of them at all.”

He’s seeing that change with the advent of Clean Slate. More people are qualifying for expungements, and many organizations — including Safe & Just Michigan — are organizing expungement fairs to help people get access to free or low-cost expungements.

One of those organizations, the Brown and Black Cannabis Guild, reached out to the Cooley Law School Access to Justice Clinic to ask for help with such an expungement fair. Interested in their work — which includes helping people who have a criminal record get expungements and find secure housing and good jobs — Sandiford offered to become a volunteer.

Sandiford was working on an expungement fair in Lansing, co-sponsored by Safe & Just Michigan, when he met SJM staff. Talks began about bringing Sandiford to SJM as the Clean Slate Program Manager, a position that would task him with organizing more expungement fairs, assisting with pre-screening of expungement applicants and answering expungement questions.

“I know that Safe & Just Michigan has done a lot to get Clean Slate passed, and now Safe & Just Michigan and other partner organizations want to see people benefit from the new law,” Sandiford said. “The way we can do that is by having these expungement fairs, getting the word out about Clean Slate and its benefit to people. More than anything, it’s about the potential for Clean Slate being fulfilled.”