A bipartisan package of bills announced this week to automatically wipe the slate clean for those convicted of certain crimes including marijuana offenses is significant. Let's hope this brings more measures designed to give those who’ve made mistakes in our society a second chance.

Far too many people struggle to provide for their families and to be productive members of our communities because of mistakes they made as teenagers.

Indeed, a significant number of poverty-stricken Detroiters have been denied the opportunity to make a comeback in life because of past mistakes.

These new measures are an important step towards criminal justice reform.

“The dominating feature of the American criminal justice system is its deep racial disparities," writes Jenny Roberts, an American University law professor who has written extensively on expungement and criminal justice reform. "Although marijuana is used at similar rates across all age groups in black and white communities, blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites across the United States and thus to suffer the many collateral consequences of that arrest.

“In 2010 alone, police made 1,717,064 drug arrests in the United States, and 784,021 of them were for marijuana possession,” Roberts notes.

Former Detroit state Rep. Mary Waters, who now leads the Redemption Coalition to help those who have prior convictions find employment, says the current proposal is overdue.

“Detroit alone will benefit tremendously. There are so many people in our community who cannot get jobs due to their records. Some of these are crimes that were committed when they were teenagers. They have since turned their lives around and have not committed other crimes. There are a number of people who have multiple felonies from one incident. These bills will help,” Waters said.

The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries deals a lot with the ex-offender population including hiring some individuals with records to work at the 110-year-old organization that caters to homeless veterans, teen moms and the unemployed as well as those needing substance abuse treatment. 

“Because we are in the trenches, we see everyday how men and women who have paid penalties for their offenses are cut off from opportunities that would enable them contribute their talents and skills to society,” said DRMM president and CEO Dr. Chad Audi. “That's wrong. Ex-offenders deserve a second chance.”

Audi said, “Expungement will do our society a lot of good. First, it is a matter of fairness that offenders are not punished twice; they have served their time in prison. Second, it helps to restore their sense of self-worth and confidence. Third, it will cut the rate of recidivism — and we know it costs taxpayers a lot of money to keep them in prison. And fourth, it will enable and enhance their skill-based contributions to society. That's why we are solidly in favor of it.”

State Rep. Isaac Robinson, who represents District 4 which covers Detroit and Hamtramck, said the bills should be monitored carefully. Robinson and Waters have been working on the issue of expungement before the recent public unveiling of the plan.

“Through the hearing process and with input from constituents we need to come up with the best expungement legislation possible. We must take a deep dive into this bill package.   We must be careful not to create false expectations because these are only legislative proposals,” Robinson said. “Getting legislation passed is critical and would be life-changing for many Detroiters and Michiganders plagued by housing and employment barriers.”

Waters agreed.

“I hope legislators will continue to keep in mind that their original goal for introducing the package of bills is to put people to work and grow Michigan's economy,” she said.

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