State lawmakers push bipartisan expungement reform plan

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A group of state lawmakers on Monday unveiled a bipartisan legislative reform package aimed at clearing the criminal records of more of Michigan's ex-offenders. 

The bill, sponsored by lawmakers including Reps. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, and Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, would remove barriers allowing automatic expungement for certain offenders, cover more offenses and shorten the eligibility period. 

Project Clean Slate Attorney Stephani LaBelle, left, and her client Tamika Mallory speak at a press conference Monday on the east side of Detroit to announce a new bill speeding up expungement of the criminal records of low risk offenders.

"This legislation is about the moral character and the moral future of our state," Rabhi said during a Monday news conference in Detroit. "We are looking at Michigan becoming a leader in the nation on this issue, making sure that justice can once again prevail in this state and that all Michiganders are treated fairly and can get employment if they would like to get a job."

Among the reforms, the package would allow individuals with marijuana convictions to be set aside for crimes that would no longer be prohibited under the recently changed state law. It also would shorten the eligibility period from five to three years and allow minor crimes for similar offenses to be consolidated for forgiveness based on the actions of "one bad night," the proposal notes. 

State Rep. Graham Filler speaks about the new bill Monday.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and state Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, joined in the announcement that took place near the future site of the $2.5 billion Fiat Chrysler Automobiles plant on the city's east side that's expected to bring 5,000 jobs to Detroit.

"We have far too many citizens in this state and in this city whose talents we have discarded and marginalized for way too long," Duggan said. "Folks who paid their debt, wanted to rebuild their lives and as a state we've made it far too difficult."

In Detroit alone, about 82,000 residents are eligible for expungement under the state's current laws. If the proposal goes through, the city estimates 133,000 more would qualify, for a total of 214,000 residents, said Stephani LaBelle, an attorney for Project Clean Slate, Detroit's free expungement program.

Hearings on the bills will be scheduled in the coming weeks, Filler said Monday. 

The state's current law is "very narrow" in scope, the lawmakers contend, only allowing ex-offenders to petition for expungement after a minimum of five years. This law would permit applications sooner, remove barriers to employment and broaden the pool of skilled labor, they said. 

Other bill sponsors include Reps. Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale; Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, and Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville.

Michigan's current expungement law allows people with certain convictions to petition for expungement of one felony or two misdemeanors after avoiding contact with the court system for at least five years. 

"It is important that we extend opportunities and remove barriers to get people back to work and that's what we're standing here united to do today," Gay-Dagnogo said. "We all have our differences, but today we stand in unity, and our goal is to put all Michiganders back to work."

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

Filler noted that the legislation unveiled Monday basically indicates that if an activity is legal now, "it shall be expunged."

"It's about as close to automatic as you can get," he said.

Prior to taking office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in November she would pursue legislation and possibly executive action to free inmates and expunge criminal records for those convicted of marijuana crimes that would become legal under the state's recreational marijuana law.

"The governor does not have the legal authority to unilaterally expunge marijuana convictions, but would be open to discussing this issue with her legislative partners to ensure that residents do not bear a lifelong record for conduct that would now be legal at the state level," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in an email. "We will review the legislation."

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy supported the package, saying an opportunity for former offenders to move on and find better jobs provides a "clear incentive" to "model upstanding behavior."gov. 

"People who have committed crimes should be punished in a manner appropriate to the harm they have caused," said David Guenthner, a senior strategist for state affairs with the Mackinac Center, in a statement. "But once people have completed their sentences and shown over time that they are dedicated to a law-abiding path, they deserve the opportunity to get out from under their past mistakes."