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Students from the University of Detroit Mercy law school will spend the next week in several rural counties helping people to expunge their criminal records.

The traveling clinic program, called "Project Access," is funded by a grant from the Michigan State Bar Foundation and will visit Gratiot, Wexford, Missaukee, Kalkaska, Crawford and Otsego counties to assist convicted individuals with what can often be a complicated application process.

Organizers hope the clinics make success more attainable for offenders, citing a recent University of Michigan Law School study that showed people's wages increased by 25% within two years of gaining an expungement. 

“Clearing your record can make the difference in getting a job, in restoring a professional license, getting a student loan, getting into college, graduating from college. It can make a difference in securing housing, getting a loan for a home,” Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack said Thursday at the launch of the program in Lansing. 

Last year, there were more than 3,000 expungements processed in Michigan, "but obviously the pool of potential applicants is a lot larger than that," McCormack said.

"Justice must be accessible equally to everyone and this project delivers on that," McCormack said.

The initiative comes as lawmakers explore ways to expedite the expungement process for those convicted of marijuana crimes in light of the state’s legalization in December of recreational use.

This month, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a bill that would automatically clear convictions for possession or use of marijuana, an initiative he believes would expunge the records of more than 235,000.

He noted that only about 6% of those eligible for expungement end up applying because of the expense and uncertain returns associated with the process.

“Cannabis is now legal in Michigan and petty offenses in the past should be no barrier to getting back to work or school,” Irwin said in a statement announcing the legislation.

The expungement program launched Thursday will send eight University of Detroit Mercy law students to the six rural counties to screen applicants and then, if they qualify, assist with the application process. Students will work with local judges and volunteer attorneys to file the paperwork in court and schedule hearing dates for the applicants.

The university attempted to reach out to potential applicants for screening ahead of the clinics to streamline the process, said Rebecca Simkins Nowak, clinical program coordinator at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. 

"We did our very best to get people to call ahead, to pre-screen," Simkins Nowak said. "But we do not want anyone to be dissuaded. If they didn’t call ahead, they should come.”

The clinics aim to simplify and provide access to a task that can be "daunting" for people seeking relief, "who have paid their debt society and who have otherwise atoned for their past wrongdoings," said Clinton County Judge Michelle Rick, who helped to spearhead the initiative. 

"I can tell  you as a circuit judge, I have seen firsthand the power an expungement can have," she said. "It is awesome."

Students who volunteer to for the program will gain valuable experience, but will receive no pay or school credit for the work, school officials said.

“I hope that the law students see the meaningful impact that access to an attorney can have,” said Jennifer Bentley, executive director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation. “Expungements really can change someone’s trajectory.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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