Opinion: Clean-slate legislation strengthens Michigan

J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr
The Legislature should expand citizen's access to record set-asides by adopting new bills that would simplify, speed up and even automate the process, Prescott and Starr write.

One mistake leading to a criminal conviction can change someone’s life forever. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to succeed. People with even minor records face pervasive employment, housing and educational barriers. Their children, families and communities suffer as a result.

For years, Michigan has offered certain offenders a chance to set aside their criminal records through expungement. But this path has been long, narrow and rocky at best, so few people have been able to take advantage of it. 

Now, the state Legislature is considering adopting a package of new bills to expand set-aside access. We strongly urge it to do so.

We recently conducted a major study of the effects of Michigan’s set-aside procedure. We found that while very few people with records get set-asides, those who do have great outcomes. 

In particular, we find that expungement is associated with large improvements in employment opportunities. Wages increase by close to 25% in just a year as people who had been unemployed became able to find stable work.

We also find nothing to suggest that granting someone a set-aside puts the public at risk, as skeptics have sometimes suggested. Those who receive set-asides are less likely to commit a new crime than the general adult population of Michigan. The rate of serious or violent re-offending is almost zero.

In part, this is because people who get set-asides are low-risk to begin with. To qualify, you have to be law-abiding for at least five years. Lots of research shows that people who have cleaned up their acts for that long are very unlikely to offend again. 

Beyond that, research also suggests that set-asides should reduce that crime risk even further. Jobs and stable housing — which set-asides can help people access — help to reduce re-offending.

Despite these benefits, our current system makes it difficult to get a set-aside. Only 2,500 people annually get one — a tiny fraction of those with records.

This is partly because only a small share of people with records are legally eligible. Some of the exclusions are arbitrary — for example, all traffic crimes are ineligible for expungement.

In addition, however, many who are eligible don’t know it. The law is confusing, and most people don’t have lawyers to help them. The process of getting a set-aside is long, difficult and expensive. People with records often already have their resources stretched thin, so these hurdles are just too high.

The proposed reforms will help to address this problem. Under certain conditions, records will automatically be sealed — no jumping through hoops required. This legislation will make Michigan one of the leaders in a new nationwide movement to offer people with records a second chance.

Under the current version of the bill, the automated set-aside process won’t apply to violent offenses, and it will require 10 years with a clean record — twice the waiting period that the current process requires. These limits are unnecessary. Our study found five years was plenty to ensure very low re-offending rates, even for those convicted of a violent crime. Delays and exclusions like this have costs — they limit the potential economic and public safety benefits of set-asides. 

The current reform package is a strong first step, and with a few amendments it would represent huge progress.

J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr are professors at University of Michigan Law School.