Effort helps clear criminal records, allow fresh starts

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Keith McFadden doesn't remember the details of how it happened. But a long-ago brush with the law has cost him a lot of opportunities, including the chance to serve in the military.

McFadden, 56, said a marijuana possession charge from the early 1970s, when he was a teen, just "keeps popping up" and creating problems for him.

The Detroiter was several weeks into his stint with the military and living on a U.S. Army base in Texas when, he said, he had to leave because he had not come clean about the marijuana conviction.

"They ended up kicking me out," McFadden said.

He's hoping a local program, sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, will help him clear it up, get it off his record and allow him to take part in a government-backed job program.

The event comes in the wake of a new state law that makes it easier for ex-convicts to clear their records and, fair organizers hope, find work.

"(A past criminal record) is the invisible sentence that dogs you ... after you have completed your sentence," said Nora Hudson, an attorney and sorority member who's coordinating the fair. "You can't hold a job, get a professional license, teach school or even get a job at McDonald's with a (criminal record)."

The first part of the sorority's Expungement Fair aimed at helping people like McFadden is scheduled for 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

The second part, for those who qualify to seek an expungement, will be from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. March 21 at the local sorority headquarters, 24760 W. Seven Mile.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the sorority's social and community action efforts. Delta Sigma Theta, made up predominantly of black, college-educated women, emphasizes community service.

Expungements, which remove or set aside criminal conviction, differ by state.

In Michigan, under legislation signed last month by Gov. Rick Snyder, those convicted of a nonviolent felony or two misdemeanors may apply to have their record cleaned.

In 2011, the governor signed a bill giving judges more discretion in deciding whether to grant expungements.

Felonies that cannot be expunged include murder, rape and drunken driving.

A person seeking an expungement files a request with the court where he was convicted. Typically, the process takes about three months.

Individuals can apply for an expungement five years following a conviction. Legal fees range from $800-$2,500, though an expungement can be accomplished without an attorney.

Carl Taylor, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University and an expert on criminal issues, said the expungement campaign is a much-needed effort to help some ex-offenders get back on their feet.

"I think we need more programs like these," Taylor said. "The problem is with the justice system. It has not been consistent on the issue of race and class."

But he cautioned that an expungement doesn't guarantee that information about a conviction always disappears for good.

"With technology being what it is today, nothing is ever erased," he said. "Someone might be able to go in and Google (a former record)."

The program remains a great initiative to help people wade through the legal system for free, he said. Otherwise, Taylor added, those who don't have the money would not be able to have an attorney help them obtain an expungement.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office says it does not keep statistics on the number of people who have received expungements, since the records are sealed once the process is completed.

Tonya Roscoe, a Delta Sigma Theta member who's working on the expungement fair, said a lawyer won't appear in court with the individual seeking an expungement but will help begin the process.

"We hope to really assist by not just giving information but by completing the forms, giving directions and scheduling a date March 21, 2015, to help those who need additional assistance," said Roscoe. "This is different from most expungement events because of the one-on-one contact."

Hudson added her organization is helping individuals achieve "the American Dream" by having a job and doing that without a record "that haunts you."


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