Bill would expunge convictions; give fresh start

By Tom Gantert
Legal News

Thirty years ago, Kelly Bannister was found guilty of shoplifting. That crime followed her around like tin cans on a newlywed’s car for decades as it prevented her from getting jobs.

“They don’t care,” said the 48-year-old Jackson woman about employers who find a criminal conviction on a job applicant’s record. “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been there or what it was for.”

Finally, Bannister contacted a lawyer this year and had the crime reduced to a misdemeanor.

“I’m almost in tears,” she said. “It feels unreal. I believe people should be given a second chance, depending on the nature of their felony and how they have changed their lives.”

Bannister, who expects to get her associate’s degree from Baker College this year, supports proposed legislation that would make it easier for people to have a felony or misdemeanor convictions expunged from their record.

House Bill 4186, sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Stacy Erwin Oates, would allow a person convicted of not more than two misdemeanors to have both expunged or have a felony conviction erased under certain circumstances.

The bill would amend the law to allow someone with a felony offense with not more than two misdemeanor offenses to have it set aside. If a person has two misdemeanors with no felonies, both could be expunged.

A felony punishable by life imprisonment, criminal sexual conduct and traffic offenses is not eligible to be expunged. Also, a felony for domestic violence
couldn’t be expunged if the person had a prior misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence.

A person would have to wait five years since completing his or her last sentence to be eligible.

Ann Arbor Defense Attorney Lynn D’Orio said that sentencing guidelines can include expunged convictions if the person were to get in legal trouble again.

“Even if the slate is wiped clean for the general public, that history will continue to follow that person if they continue to get in trouble,” she said. “There are some people that mess up and if they can keep themselves out of trouble, they should be allowed to get them expunged.”

Jackson Defense Attorney George Lyons said there are people suffering for mistakes in the past but who are currently doing “great things.”

“They can’t get a job,” Lyons said. “They can’t get a loan. There are so many instances where people who have been convicted of a certain type of crime have a de-facto life sentence.”

Lyons would like to see a waiting period such as the one the bill proposes to ensure the person looking to have previous crimes expunged has been in good standing with the law.

Some programs, such as the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, help first-time offenders under the age of 21. Under the act, crimes can be expunged if probation is served and the community service is completed.

“The judges need to be able to make these decisions case by case,” Lyons said.

Oakes said some people deserve a second chance.

“This issue is important because research reveals that unemployment and homelessness have a profound impact on whether a person convicted of a crime will become a repeat offender,” said Oakes, noting that tens of thousands of Michigan residents are affected.

“This bill would help reduce state assistance, homelessness, unemployment and poverty, while increasing access to higher education and ensuring these people have the opportunity to contribute to society in their own unique way,” said Oakes.

According to a House Fiscal Agency analysis, 30 percent of adult Americans have criminal records, and studies show that 66 percent of employers will not knowingly hire someone with a past criminal conviction.

The Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan supports the legislation.

James Samuels, president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, said it is difficult for people convicted even of minor offenses to obtain jobs, apartments, and even admissions to many educational institutions

“We talk about letting people who have paid for their sins get on about their lives,” he said, “but if we really believe in rehabilitation and redemption and letting folks who have made mistakes in their past move on, we must provide avenues for them to do so, and clearing their records after an appropriate period of time of demonstrated good behavior is one important avenue.

The Chronicle of Higher Education says “more than 60 percent of colleges consider applicants’ criminal histories in admissions decisions, but less than half of those have formal policies for how to do so,” according to a 2010 study by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Samuels often gets calls from former students 10 years after they graduated who were convicted of a minor in position or an improper license charge. He said those people can’t security clearance or promotion due to prior minor misdemeanors.

“Under the current law, they cannot get their record expunged,” Samuels said. “The proposed legislation restores some fairness to our system and prevents
youthful indiscretions from ruining a person's future.”