Tens of thousands of Detroiters can get criminal records expunged; why few try
Detroit — Stephen Erter spent six months in a boot camp operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections and 18 months on probation after being convicted of felonious assault in 2013.
After he left the boot camp, he applied for countless jobs, many of which offered him positions. But when it came time for a background check, the offers were rescinded.
The Detroit father of six, whose children include two sets of twins, struggled for years to obtain meaningful employment.
"Once I was released, it was very hard to find a job, of course, because one question that every application ask is, 'Were you convicted of a felony?' And it was like fighting tooth and nail trying to find a job," said Erter, 35.
The struggle, he added, put pressure on his wife, Jade, who works on the assembly line at Stellantis, to carry their family financially.
More than 215,000 Detroiters have criminal records, the city estimates, and a projected 168,000 are eligible to have their record expunged. But only a small percentage of those eligible have applied for a free city expungement program created six years ago.
More recently, the number of people eligible for the program and others like it across the country has risen sharply after the Michigan Legislature last fall approved a bipartisan bill that significantly expanded the number of state residents eligible to have criminal offenses expunged from their record beginning this month.
Awareness that a criminal record can be wiped clean is one of the many hurdles to participation, said Shayla McElroy, project manager for Project Clean Slate.
Detroiters do not seek expungement because they don't know they're eligible, they believe they need money for attorney fees, they have had negative experiences with the criminal justice system or the process is overwhelming, McElroy said.
Until recently, Erter was among them. Jade Erter, 36, saw a Clean Slate Program advertisement on Facebook and that encouraged him to enroll. He applied to the free program and was granted a virtual court hearing six months later in June 2020, where his conviction was stricken from the record.
"People have no clue what options or avenues they have to go down to even fight expungement and they think that they have to get a lawyer and they have to go through all of these processes," Erter said. "However, Project Clean Slate alleviates all of that."
What Clean Slate does
The Project Clean Slate initiative, started by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in 2016, provides free legal services to Detroit residents to get their criminal records expunged and connect them to resources in the city to help with employment, education and housing opportunities.
"We're not just supporting some of the collateral damages of expungement, like housing discrimination or employment discrimination. Sometimes our clients aren't able to even get financial aid to go to school because of their criminal background," McElroy said. "To be able to have a program like this that's 100% free, that can have such a positive impact on those barriers, it's legendary and we hope more people will take advantage of it."
A small fraction of Detroit's eligible citizens are taking advantage of the program. But with the eligibility expansion that took effect April 11 across Michigan, McElroy said the city is expanding outreach in hopes a record number of residents will enroll this year.
In its first year, 2017, 133 Detroiters registered and eight individuals had their expungements granted. Last year, the city registered 11,610 individuals and 725 people had their records expunged.
Since the program began, 18,950 Detroiters have registered and 2,590 expungements have been granted, including 356 so far this year.
The process is streamlined, McElroy said. Applicants attend one formal meeting to complete their application, get fingerprinted and then attend their expungement court hearing.
Only in-state convictions can be expunged, and applicants must not have any active warrants. Any previously ordered restitution must be paid in full.
"From the time that somebody registers for Project Clean Slate to their actual expungement hearing, it's about a one-year process," McElroy said. "Regardless if they're not familiar with the process, if they think it may be confusing, even if they think they're ineligible, we want them to just apply for our program and let us take care of the rest."
Residents must show proof they live in the city and cannot have more than three felonies. There is no limit on the number of misdemeanor convictions, but no more than two can involve assaultive behavior.
Felony convictions that are ineligible include any offense punishable by life, such as murder, traffic offenses causing death and terrorism.
Of the 11,610 registrations last year, only a handful of those eligible were denied, McElroy said. Another 2,771 applicants are pending review and 6,300 were deemed ineligible because of the nature of the conviction or convictions, because of pending criminal charges or due to outstanding court fees.
Outreach efforts expanding
As April, known as Second Chance Month, comes to a close, McElroy said the city is increasing its community outreach by contacting nonprofit agencies across the city and informing caseworkers. City officials also have partnered with the Department of Neighborhoods to broadcast information about the program to anyone willing to hear about it.
Prior to the passage of Michigan's Clean Slate Law last fall, residents were limited to expunging a single eligible felony conviction. The law now allows up to three felonies. The law also created the “One Bad Night” provision, which makes it possible for someone to have even more than three felonies expunged under certain limited circumstances.
"From the expungement events our department has helped to organize and support, we hear from residents that the ability to expunge an expanded number of eligible felony convictions has the most potential to help improve their lives," said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
It's estimated that nearly 1 million people in Michigan are eligible for expungement, Nessel's office said.
A University of Michigan 2020 study published in the Harvard Law Review estimates between 19 million and 24 million Americans have felony convictions, and an unknown — but presumably much larger — number have misdemeanor conviction records.
Policymakers, civil rights advocates and scholars have paid increased attention to barriers of employment, housing and social integration that the records can pose, "not to mention the hundreds of collateral legal consequences that typically flow from criminal convictions, such as restrictions on public-benefits eligibility and occupational licensing," UM researchers said, adding these hurdles have been described as amounting to a "new civil death."
Michigan researchers J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr also noted that those who obtain expungements have low rates of committing future crimes and will experience a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories. Within one year, on average, wages increased 22%.
Studying the impact of programs like Project Clean Slate is too difficult, researchers said, because expunged criminal records are not available to review and other relevant outcome data like wage information and employment status are protected by privacy laws.
"While there are many persuasive theoretical reasons to believe that expungement laws will have large and important effects across many domains, the dearth of empirical evidence is a significant hindrance to reform and experimentation. It leaves policymakers almost entirely in the dark," Prescott and Starr wrote.
John Nevin, communications director for the Michigan Supreme Court, said the State Court Administrative Office that oversees Michigan's local courts isn't tracking expungements.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive order in 2018 preventing state departments from using a check box on state applications asking job seekers if they had been convicted of a felony. At the same time, he announced the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs had removed all criminal history questions from licensing applications, except when required under state or federal law.
Clean record 'opened up doors'
One of those who has gotten his criminal record expunged is Christopher Pate, who owns homes in Detroit and Roseville. He was convicted in 1984 of felonious assault. He served three years probation.
Pate, 61, was working with a community jail diversion program and had often referred people to the Project Clean Slate program. But it wasn't until he applied to a mental health agency in Macomb County that he considered using the expungement program himself. He was offered the job working with seniors but had that offer rescinded after his background check showed a felony conviction from 1980s.
Disappointed and seeking higher-paying job opportunities, he said he decided to enroll in Project Clean Slate in October of 2020.
His conviction was removed from his record at a hearing in January 2021, he said.
"Cleaning my record opened up doors for me. Now, I work with special needs adults. Otherwise, I couldn't if I still had a felony on my record," Pate said.
"I was working for a mental health agency, but that agency, they would take just about anybody, but the thing was, it stagnated my ability to get a better income because they low-balled everybody. In order to move forward, I had to get the expungement."
Stephen Erter was denied several jobs until he said Ford Motor Co. hired him to work on the line in 2017, four years after his conviction. He stayed with the company until last year.
"It was hard for him. Once he came home, it put a strain on our relationship and our family. But once he was able to go through that and he was able to go through the program, it helped a lot...," Jade Erter said. "Even with my referral as a worker at Stellantis, he was denied twice."
Stephen Erter recently got his passport and plans to travel across the country, to Canada and on cruise ships for his job as a comedian. His stage name is Wavey Crockett.
He has shows planned, including a Mother's Day special at the Senate Theatre in Detroit, and is featured in a movie titled "Couples Trip" set to be released this summer.
"Now he's able to chase his dream, which is comedy," Jade Erter said.
How to participate
For Detroit residents interested in registering to have a criminal conviction considered for expungement, reach out to www.detroitmi.gov/projectcleanslate or email email@example.com.