Clearing Thousands More Criminal Records Could Boost Michigan’s Economy

For about seven years, Erica Edwards struggled to find steady employment. She was stuck in an apartment she didn’t like. And the Lansing-area mother of two couldn’t volunteer at her youngest son’s school.

A felony conviction stood in the way.

“With this crime on your record, it may depress you and bring you down so far,” she said.

But that all changed when Edwards filed for expungement and a judge overturned his conviction in November 2020.

“I was relieved to have a second chance to start my life, a second chance to find a career that allowed me to support my family, a second chance to move out of an apartment that I hated so much”, Edwards said. “It was one of the second best days of my life, aside from having kids.”

Related: Up to 1 million Michigan residents may be eligible for ‘clean slate’ criminal expungements

Edwards is likely one of millions of Michiganders who have faced obstacles in finding stable employment or housing due to their criminal records.

At least four million people have an arrest or criminal record, but some may not have a conviction, according to federal data. And about one million people were eligible for delisting when Michigan’s Clean Slate laws went into effect on April 11, 2021.

Since then, more than 10,000 have requested expungement, of which 8,229 records have been erased. Before Clean Slate, only about 2,500 Michiganders applied each year.

“The more people expunged, the better,” said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan. “But that’s a drop in the ocean when you’re talking about a few million people with criminal records in Michigan.”

The Clean Slate Act had two components. The first expungement extended to a broader range of convictions, including certain marijuana-related crimes, traffic offenses and indefinite misdemeanors. The second, which should be implemented by April 2023, will introduce automatic debarment for certain crimes, after seven to ten years.

Related: Whitmer signs remaining bills allowing most first-time drunk driving offenses to be expunged

The debarment is an economic development tool, Cooper says, that will raise wages and fill gaps in the state‘s workforce.

Research shows that people with beliefs face higher unemployment rates and struggle to find stable work. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated six years ago that this cost the US economy $78-87 billion in annual GDP.

A 2019 study from the University of Michigan; however, found that within a year of delisting, people saw their salaries go up by 23%. Those whose previous convictions were expunged also saw job gains, the research showed.

“I expect that if people have higher incomes and more money in their pockets, there will be very broad impacts from a job creation perspective,” Cooper said.

Struggling with a felony conviction, Edwards spent years jumping from one gig job to another after losing too many jobs due to failed background checks. With a clean record, however, she found a new apartment and found steady work.

“Expungement allowed me to apply for these jobs that I wouldn’t have gotten if this crime was still there,” Edwards said.

Michigan Works, the state’s workforce development association, has helped provide radiation services to 20,000 people since Clean Slate went into effect. CEO Ryan Hundt sees the debarment as supportive of Michigan’s workforce, especially as employers scramble to find workers.

“This is an important investment to ensure Michigan’s workforce has the ability to find sustainable employment and also to help our businesses be able to look past some of these barriers that have been there for a while. some time,” he said.

With thousands of job openings in Michigan, Hundt says employers are “going out of their way” to find and retain employees. This has included hiring more people with criminal convictions, exploring expungement services, removing some drug testing requirements, and lowering thresholds around degrees and certifications.

“It’s just a testament to how tight the job market is right now,” he said.

Related: Expungement program launched to help Kent County residents clear their criminal records

Legal Aid of Western Michigan, a nonprofit law firm that serves 17 counties, has seen growing interest in expungement services from Clean State. Community Engagement Legal Aid Director Steve Grumm says it creates pathways that benefit both job seekers and employers.

“It gives people who have jobs upward and lateral mobility,” he said. “They may now be able to get more education, get certified, or move on to another type of job.”

Cooper thinks the automatic disbarment, when it begins next year, will only magnify those benefits with about 20 to 40 percent of Michiganders having criminal convictions.

“Done at the scale of hundreds of thousands of people, it can make a very big difference,” he said. “And that’s a difference not only for these people, but also for their families, their communities and their employers.”

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