Project Clean Slate expansion gives more Detroiters a chance to clear criminal records

Noelle Gray
The Detroit News

Correction: Stephani LaBelle's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Also, Clean Slate officials clarified the total number of attorneys involved in the program. 

Detroit — Quiana Griffin has a passion for child welfare as a mother of three, but said decisions made in her younger years were holding her back from fulfilling her dream.

"I had a very, I would say, rebellious and tumultuous upbringing coming up," said Griffin, 42, of Detroit, who said she got into trouble with the law as a teen. "Here I was at 40 years old with these things still following me."

Griffin is among the Detroiters who got a second chance in the workforce after having her criminal record expunged under the city's Project Clean Slate program. 

Quiana Griffin is among Detroiters who got a second chance in the workforce after having her criminal record expunged under the Project Clean Slate effort.

Detroit launched the initiative in 2016 and expanded it this spring when a state law went into effect widening the number and types of offenses eligible for expungement. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan lobbied lawmakers for the expansion of the program.

Stephani LaBelle, lead attorney for Project Clean Slate, said the team now is working to bring in more help to deal with an influx of applications since the legislation expansion in April. The city has over 9,500 applicants 

Besides LaBelle, the staff includes Project Clean Slate Director Carrie Jones, one legal assistant as well as two full-time staff attorneys and two contract attorneys who handle court hearings.  

"We are in the process of hiring four additional people, so that'll really help," said LaBelle. 

The program receives the majority of its funding from the city, and supplements it with foundation support, grants and fundraising. The effort connects clients with attorneys to support them through the expungement process. It also links applicants with job opportunities and readiness programs. 

Under the legislation that expanded the program, applicants are eligible for expungement of up to three felonies and unlimited misdemeanors in a lifetime. The services are free to eligible applicants. 

Criminal offenses such as murder, rape, armed robbery and driving under the influence or driving offenses in which someone was injured or killed are not eligible. 

Project Clean Slate is a five-step process that begins with residents filling out an application. If eligible, they will get an appointment with Project Clean Slate to be fingerprinted to have their identity verified. Then, their police and court records will be requested.

The Project Clean Slate attorney assigned to each client files a court application to have their convictions set aside. Within about 90 days, the client attends a hearing with the attorney. Four to six weeks afterward, the client will receive notification of the expunged conviction, according to the program's website. 

For Griffin, Project Clean Slate came into play at the end of 2019. She heard about it on the news and immediately called to jump-start her process. After a few delays tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had two misdemeanors, one for retail fraud and the other for marijuana possession, as well as a felony for retail fraud removed from her record. 

She recently started working in the South Redford School District as a teacher's aide for the fourth grade at Fisher Elementary School.  

"From my fingerprints, to filling out all the necessary paperwork, literally I just showed up, and I showed up with a future," Griffin said. 

Duggan has said he hopes the city will be able to process 1,000 expungements in the first year. Last year, Project Clean Slate helped about 300 Detroiters clear their records. More than 6,700 Detroiters applied for the program under program rules prior to the expansion. However, only 12% were eligible, according to figures from the city. 

"So many more of our clients are now eligible for expungement," said LaBelle. "In the past, when we had to turn away a huge percentage of our people, and now we have so many eligible Detroiters that we have them in queues because we can only process so many applications at a time.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the bipartisan expungement bill in October.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer poses with signed Clean Slate Criminal Justice Bill with Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist (left), Hector Santiago (center) and Mayor Mike Duggan on October 12, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.

On Friday, the governor signed legislation that will allow first-time drunken driving offenders to apply for expungement. The bill from Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, sets a five-year waiting period from the time a defendant is sentenced or completes any imprisonment, probation or parole to the point where an individual is able to file an application to set aside the offense.

Whitmer signed two other bills in that bipartisan package in late August, but had to wait until the Senate approved McBroom's portion. The bills take effect in six months. 

Hector Santiago, 36, of southwest Detroit attended Whitmer's signing of the expungement bill last fall.

Santiago, who is running for Detroit City Council's District 6, joined the program in the fall of 2019. His wife, Liz, saw a billboard advertising Project Clean Slate and told him to call, he said. 

He was seeking to have a felony charge for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud removed from his record.

Santiago's process moved rapidly after going through the filing process, and had his record expunged in October while working as a program manager for the Greening of Detroit, a city nonprofit. 

"Two years ago ... I was blessed with the opportunity to receive an expungement. That day, I actually made my decision to run for Detroit City Council," he said. "It was the most emotional day of my life."

Residents can visit to begin registration the process, email, or call (313) 237-3024.