Access to quality education, a good-paying job and a safe place to live are essential elements needed for families and children to thrive. Unfortunately for some, a criminal record stands as a barrier to pursuing them.
“I got into some trouble when I was younger, but those charges were dropped from my record,” said David Burgess, a Battle Creek, Mich. resident. “Imagine my surprise, years later, when I applied for a maintenance job — one that would have been a great opportunity for me and my daughter, of who I have full custody — only for them to come back and deny me employment because of my criminal record.”
David is not alone. Nearly 3 million of our 10 million residents in Michigan have criminal convictions. That means almost a third of our population has criminal records that, for even the most minor of convictions, can prevent individuals from renting apartments, being promoted or securing jobs. Simply put, criminal convictions are barriers to financial stability for individuals and also to entire communities across our state.
The process of clearing a criminal record is called expungement. Going through an expungement process removes a person’s criminal convictions from public records.
“Through our representation of and advocacy for low-income people and communities, we have witnessed the barriers that result from criminal convictions, even those that are decades old,” said Sarah Munro of Legal Services of South Central Michigan. “Indeed, clients with criminal records, especially felony records, are routinely denied access to employment, housing, and even the ability to volunteer in their children’s schools.”
Expungement is a critical opportunity for individuals to clear their slate of the convictions that have hung over their heads, sometimes for decades, and prevented them from improving their quality of life. However, expungement is a tedious and challenging process that can be hard to navigate alone.
Seeing the need for expungements in Battle Creek, several community organizations coordinated an Expungement Fair on Feb. 23, 2022, at Kellogg Arena. Co-hosted by Community Action, MichiganWorks!, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Goodwill Industries, Michigan Advocacy Program and Calhoun County Public Defender, registration for the event filled up almost immediately, with nearly 200 residents seeking support.
By the time registrants walked into the expungement clinic, Calhoun County court clerks had already pulled their certified records for application and waived the fees that come with the process. Once checked in, individuals received a folder of their records and sat down with a pro-bono attorney through Legal Services of South Central Michigan and the Calhoun County Public Defender’s office to discuss their case. Next, each person worked with a pro-bono lawyer to fill out the expungement application and have it signed before a notary. Before walking out the door, the application had been filed with the court and residents were well on their way to having their criminal records expunged.
Through this partnership, community organizers behind the clinic turned a time-consuming, costly and often confusing process into a five-hour collaborative effort that resulted in helping more than 100 Battle Creek residents submit expungement applications.
“I learned about the Expungement Fair through my mother, who received an email with information from Michigan Works!” Burgess said. “I signed up on the website, and the process went smoothly. I was in and out in under two and half hours, which is reasonable considering the amount of support I received.”
The clinic addressed — and further exposed — an obvious need in the Battle Creek community for expungement support. The data shows a significant imbalance in Michigan between criminal convictions and expungements, with 45,000 new felonies and 200,000 new misdemeanors issued annually but only 3,000 expungements granted annually.
“The Expungement Event is the type of event that transforms lives,” said Community Action CEO Michelle Williamson. “Breaking free of past mistakes to make a brighter future is essential for a vibrant and thriving community. It gives people hope, and Community Action is proud to be a part of the positive impact within our community.”
By providing support and resources to the community and reducing the barriers to applying for expungement, organizations in Battle Creek are doing their best to ensure more residents can clear their criminal records and pursue new opportunities in education, employment and housing. However, there is still much work to be done, and organizations in the community are eager to continue collaborating to help residents thrive.
Today, David owns and operates a lawn care and handyman business, and he is well on his way to finalizing his expungement application.
“I’m blown away that there is a program like this helping community members get a second chance,” said David. “This is such a huge weight off my shoulders. Now, if I have to go through the job or housing process, I can put my name down without being scared that I’ll be denied because of a mistake I made when I was younger.”
If you live in Michigan and would like support filing an expungement application, please visit www.michiganworks.org or Michigan Legal Help’s online intake form. To locate expungement resources nationally, please visit www.newxnow.org.