People are struggling.
People are struggling to pay rent, afford childcare, go to school, find jobs. There’s not enough food on the table; affording needed medications can be out of the question; relationships with family and friends are strained or broken in the wake of extreme financial distress.
For many in Muskegon County, these struggles persist years, and often decades, after individuals have been convicted of a crime, served their time, and reentered society—and these issues often exist because their old criminal records are preventing them from finding work, community leaders explain.
“Many of these people did things when they were 16, 17, 18 years old,” said Marianne Darnell, the chairperson of the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County. “Now they’re 30, 35, 40; they’ve done their time, and they want to live. They want to give back to their community. But they can’t.”
“They haven’t committed a crime in years, but they still can’t get a job, so they’re doing odd jobs,” Darnell continued. “Selling pop bottles does not make you money. But that’s what they’re doing; they’re just hanging in there hoping they’ll be able to get a job or get in school someday.”
But, things are changing. A bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers are pushing forward six bills that would significantly expand who’s eligible to have their criminal history wiped clean—and, locally, a group of community leaders are working to connect individuals with the resources they need to get their records expunged.
This Saturday, Oct. 12, the Muskegon County Public Defenders’ Office will host an expungement clinic during the County’s “Full Service Saturday” event that runs from 9am to 2:30pm. The expungement clinic will be held at 155 E. Apple Ave., building E. During the clinic, individuals with criminal records will have access to eligibility screenings for expungement, as well as the opportunity to connect with legal representatives about expungement and questions regarding erasing criminal histories. There will also be a chance for people to sign up to vote at the clinic. Those planning on attending are encouraged to bring identification, as that is needed in order to move ahead with the expungement eligibility screening.
Then, on Saturday, Oct. 19, the Black Women’s Political Caucus will host another expungement clinic as part of the Muskegon Heights Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The event will take place from 12pm-3pm at Smith-Ryerson Park, located at 650 Wood St. in Muskegon.
A number of community leaders and organizations are partnering with the Public Defenders’ Office to plan, support and promote the Oct. 12 expungement clinic as part of the “100 day challenge” that emerged from the Muskegon Community Health Innovation Region’s “Livability Lab” in September. During the Livability Lab—which aimed to pursue creative solutions to community challenges in order to make Muskegon County livable for everyone—attendees split up into teams and are now working on creating the change discussed during the event.
One such team is a group of community leaders focusing on addressing expungement in our area, including Asaline Scott, a longtime social justice advocate who is currently the chair of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County Board of Trustees; 60th District Court Administrator Patrick Finnegan; and Kathy Rohlman, the talent solutions manager at West Michigan Works! Darnell and the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County are also working with the group on expungement.
“It’s urgent that people be able to take care of their families and earn a livable wage, pay their rent, pay insurance, be able to pay for childcare,” Scott said, explaining the need for expungement. “People want to work so badly but can’t, and they feel so horrible about themselves. When you hear, ‘no, no, no,’ you stop believing in yourself and stop looking for a job. Don’t we want people to find jobs? Don’t we want people who can afford childcare, cars, housing?”
Finnegan emphasized that they’re particularly pleased to offer the expungement clinic as part of the “Full Service Saturday” because it will allow them to connect with large numbers of people from the community.
The “Full Service Saturday”—which is offered as a partnership through the County Clerk, the 60th District Court, the Sheriff’s Office, Friend of the Court, and Circuit Court Record Services—will offer a wide variety of services typically provided solely during regular business hours, including certified copies of birth and death certificates, fingerprinting, wedding ceremonies, making payments for child support and criminal fines, and much more. For the entire list of available services, click here. It will be held at the Michael E. Kobza Hall of Justice, located at 990 Terrace Street.
Muskegon County Public Defender Fred Johnson said his office is expecting a high turnout for the expungement clinic—at the first such event the office held in 2014, about 500 people attended.
“The goal is to reach out to those people who are eligible to take advantage of the statute,” Johnson said, referring to those who are legally able to clear their criminal histories but have yet to do so. “If you get your record expunged, you can get a job, an apartment to live in; you can go to school; you can get a credit card. This opens doors for people.”
Current state law, MCL 780.621, allows people to apply to have one felony or two misdemeanors expunged. Individuals with one felony and up to two misdemeanors may have the felony expunged, and those with up to two misdemeanors and no other offenses may have both offenses cleared from their record.
A conviction cannot be expunged if it’s punishable by life; if it’s criminal sexual conduct of the first, second or third degree; if it’s a traffic offense; or if it’s child abuse in the first or second degree. Additionally, to be eligible for expungement, at least five years must have passed since the end of one’s time served or probation has concluded.
Johnson emphasized that even if someone is not currently eligible for expungement, they may be able to clear their criminal history once the new legislation is passed—which lawmakers from both parties and the governor have said is expected to happen.
“If it passes anywhere near where it’s proposed, it’s going to be a revolutionary change,” Johnson said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It will allow people to get on with their lives. You won’t be held back by mistakes you’ve made in your teens. You have people walking around who haven’t done anything for 40 years being held back because of their records.”
Under the proposed legislation, an individual with up to three felonies and any number of misdemeanors could have all their criminal history cleared, provided none of the crimes were assaultive. An individual with an assaultive crime could have up to two felonies and four misdemeanors expunged. Individuals convicted of murder or criminal sexual conduct would not be eligible for expungement.
The proposed legislation too would establish automatic expungement for individuals if none of their convictions are for an assaultive crime or serious misdemeanor, allow for the expungement of marijuana convictions if the conviction was for an action that’s now legal, and allow for the expungement of some traffic offenses.
This expanded access to wiping criminal records would not only mean more people being able to fill the some 2,000 open jobs in Muskegon right now, but it would ensure fewer people returning to jail, Johnson said.
“If I can’t get a job because I have a felony and my family’s hungry, what am I going to do?” Johnson asked. “There’s your recidivism right there. If I can get a job, I can pay taxes; I can do my share to keep schools running and roads repaired; I can go out and buy food for my family. There’s a direct link between opportunity and recidivism, and one of the major barriers to opportunity is a criminal history.”
Darnell too emphasized this point.
“Your jail is full of people who went to the store and stole a loaf of bread,” she said. “Why did he steal bread? He stole bread not to sell it; he stole the bread to eat it. We’ve got to show more compassion as a society, be more loving, be more giving. That’s what we need to do in Muskegon County.”
“People have a tendency to think this is a Muskegon, Muskegon Heights issue—no, no no, it’s not,” Darnell continued. “Fruitport, Norton Shores, everybody’s got issues with this. We need to all come together. We want to help everyone. We need to stop turning up our noses at people, come together, and let people get on with their lives and be productive.”
And it won’t only be the individuals applying for expungement who would be more productive—companies would welcome the chance to have a larger pool of applicants, Rohlman noted.
“We’re in a tight economic space right now; employers are in need of good employees, but they’re limited in terms of who they can hire,” Rohlman said. “We have a number of employers in manufacturing and healthcare who can’t hire people with criminal records. That’s a real barrier for employers.”