In 2022 Legal Aid of Western Michigan will launch a three-year criminal record expungement project to help Kent County residents access better jobs, housing and education opportunities by moving on from long-past mistakes.
“When we did a criminal record expungement fair down in Kalamazoo in August , one of the first people I spoke with was a woman who said that she'd been in the same level of job at her employer for 20 years. The only thing that was keeping her from advancing was having this long shadow, this record for some mistakes she made when she was a kid,” says Steve Grumm, director of community engagement for Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM). “It's really heartening to think that you can open up a lot of doors for people.”
LAWM has been doing expungement work in 17 counties for some time. However, a new W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant will allow them to amplify their work within Kent County’s larger population center. The grant will help pay legal staff to take people through the complicated process and also cover administrative and legal fees that expungement entails.
“There really isn't good county-by-county data on how many people might be eligible for expungement, but we know a couple of things,” Grumm says. “We know that, nationally speaking, about one in three adult Americans have some kind of a criminal record that could pop up in a background check. The thing that really jumped out at us was a piece of data that came from a University of Michigan Law School study. In Michigan, for people who are eligible for an expungement, only 6.5% actually got that expungement within five years of being eligible.”
Michigan expungement laws that went into effect in April 2021 let people remove up to three felonies and an unlimited number of misdemeanors over their lifetime, with some exceptions for certain kinds of convictions.
“It basically does two things. It widens the avenues for people to apply for expungement now and it creates the automatic expungement mechanism, which will go into effect in April of 2023,” Grumm says. “When people get expungement, it opens up employment opportunities, whether it's for new jobs or to advance in their current jobs. They have a much better chance of getting into stable housing if they have the expungement. Those benefits cascade out to the communities they live in.”
LAWM will be rolling out the amped-up expungement program in Kent County in February. Grumm is currently recruiting community partners in order to better reach underserved, income-challenged populations and people of color who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. LAWM's first goal is to build awareness about availability and expungement’s benefits.
“We want to work with other community organizations, community activists and other neighborhood and community educators and partner up with them so it's not just a bunch of lawyers going into neighborhoods,” Grumm says. “We want to target communities where this can really be a benefit. And we also want to target lesser-served communities of color, where the odds are good that there's a disproportionate impact with consequences from the criminal justice system.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Images courtesy Legal Aid of West Michigan