Detroiters seek to expunge their criminal records for a fresh start

Project Clean Slate attorney Kavita Uppal, a former assistant Wayne County Prosecutor, helps Gary Taylor of Detroit with his expungement application at a City of Detroit office at the Northwest Activities Center on the city’s northwest side.

Detroit — Gary Taylor admits he made mistakes in his younger years that landed him with a criminal record, but the Detroiter now yearns for a clean record and is on a quest to make that happen.

Taylor, now 50, was caught with crack cocaine he was trying to sell as part of a Detroit street gang in the early 1990s.

Fed up with gang life and wanting to make his life better, Taylor said he prayed to God to remove his desire for the street life. He says his prayers were answered when Detroit police raided his neighborhood block. Taylor was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for a small amount of crack cocaine. He pleaded guilty and was given probation. He says being unaware of a $400 fine resulted in him getting arrested on a related warrant.

Nearly three decades later, Taylor is frustrated over the twists and turns to get the offenses expunged from his record. He says he is not giving up, and it's part of his effort to get a better-paying job. He's one of many hoping to land one of the 5,000 coveted positions at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' new assembly plant planned for Detroit's east side.

Taylor, a general laborer, is among hundreds of Michigan residents seeking to expunge their records of criminal convictions. Their desires are driven by prospects of better jobs, housing needs and getting state certification for vocations that require state licensing.

At recent job fairs for positions being offered by Fiat Chrysler ahead of the east side plant expansion, Detroit residents are getting assistance through a program called Project Clean Slate to clear their records of old criminal offenses.

Ted Kelly stands with attorney Stephani LaBelle, of the City of Detroit’s Project Clean Slate program on July 1, 2019 to receive his expungement from Wayne County Circuit Court Judge James R. Chylinski (not pictured).

While Fiat Chrysler is considered by attorneys in the program to be a "background-friendly" employer, the city's law department is enlisting lawyers to help clients go through the expungement process and represent them, for free, at court hearings that will ultimately determine if offenses will be removed.

Under Michigan law, an individual who has a criminal record can apply to have one felony or two misdemeanors removed from their records and for the old criminal offenses to be made non-public.

The state's expungement law has been on the books since 1965. It was amended in 2011 and again in 2014. Some Michigan lawmakers want the law expanded to allow individuals to expunge more than one felony conviction.

Michigan is among 36 states with expungement laws. There is a movement among some states toward introducing laws that make expungements automatic for some criminal offenses after 10 years.

In Michigan, an individual has to wait five years after any criminal offense or contact with law enforcement that results in an infraction before he or she is eligible to apply for an expungement.

Assault-type offenses are not eligible, nor are offenses in which the sentence would have been a life sentence, such as murder.

Attorney Kyona McGhee of Project Clean Slate, assist clients in the expungement process for criminal offenses at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hiring event.

For the past three years, Detroit's law department has been helping residents clear their records. Staffers with the program say many of the requests come after individuals are turned down for jobs because their criminal records crop up in hiring background-searches. Others seek expungements to apply for apartments and other housing, as well as state certifications for vocational licenses.

Ted Kelly, a 66-year-old Detroit resident, has waited for decades to have an old criminal offense dismissed. He ended up with a record after a 1982 charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

Last week, Kelly, who has been employed by General Motors Co. as a computer machine operator, went before Wayne County Circuit Judge James R. Chylinski, who granted the expungement.

Kelly also has a 1975 misdemeanor conviction for reckless use of a firearm. A hearing has been scheduled for that offense, said Stephani LaBelle, lead attorney for Project Clean Slate and Kelly's attorney for his expungement.

Kelly said he tried for years to get his record cleared but had no luck. Since then, new laws have been put on the books that favor individuals like Kelly. He wants to go to school to become a registered nurse; a clean record will allow him to be certified.

"It's a very good program," Kelly said. "I tried or years (to get an expungement). The time finally came."

Project Clean Slate attorney Kyona McGhee says many people are seeking expungements for better employment opportunities and "overall better life experiences."

"Having a criminal record limits them not only with employment, with professional licenses, with so many different other areas in their life," said McGhee.

McGhee says the process can take anywhere from one to four months. New fingerprinting is ordered as part of the application.

For Kavita Uppal, a former assistant Wayne County prosecutor who joined the city's law department in May to become part of the legal team of Project Clean Slate, says it's an opportunity to help individuals who have shown they do not want to be defined by their past.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge James R. Chylinski hears expungement appeals.

"I like giving them realistic hope," said Uppal. "People are grateful. They are ready to move on to a better life."

Project Clean Slate's LaBelle admits most people might not qualify for expungement because of rigorous requirements. But she said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has been lobbying the state Legislature to expand the aim of the law in an effort to help more people.

There have been 239 expungements completed through Project Clean Slate since 2018, according to Chioke Mose-Telesford, deputy director of workforce development for the City of Detroit, which is a partner of Project Clean Slate. Another 53 people are awaiting scheduled court hearings for expungements while 151 others have expungement applications in the pipeline awaiting court or client document, said Mose-Telesford.

Michigan State University sociologist and urbanologist Carl Taylor said the legal system has sometimes unfairly and unevenly punished defendants who are poor or come from communities of color. Taylor said expungement programs address the disparities in the country's criminal justice system.

"It's a big deal," Taylor said. "(Expungements) can change someone's life. Sometimes people just don't get a fair shake."

But the MSU professor cautions that some institutions might be still able to "dig deep" to find out if an individual has a prior criminal record.

For Gary Taylor, who hopes to get one of those high-paying Fiat Chrysler jobs, an expungement would be an answer to his prayer of wanting to clean up his life.

"It's good," he said. "It's going to help me."

(313) 222-2027