Bipartisan expungement reform plan package introduced by state lawmakers

Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 2:21pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

Several state lawmakers introduced a new expungement reform plan package on Sept. 9. The package includes six separate bills aimed at changing various aspects of the state’s expungement system. Expungement refers to the legal process of sealing a past criminal offence to make them unavailable. 

If passed, the bills would allow for a shortened eligibility period, expungement for crimes that are currently permissible under current law, coverage of a wider range of offenses and more.

According to one of the package’s sponsors, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, issues exist with the current expungement system. 

“Once someone has been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony and they have served their time, their crimes are still on their record which is something that prevents people, often, from getting employment or housing opportunities,” Rabhi said. “So, making sure people have a clean slate once they’ve paid their debt to society is important so that we can reduce recidivism and the amount of folks that are becoming reincarcerated because they can’t find employment or housing.”

According to Rabhi, much of the bill puts a focus on marijuana-related charges. This comes after the passage of Proposition 1 last year, making recreational marijuana use legal in the state of Michigan.

“We’ve specifically tried to address marijuana related crimes that are legal under current law and allowing those expungements to be expedited as well,” Rabhi said. “Again, this package doesn’t go as far as it could, but this is a serious step in the right direction, and it’s going farther than most states in the country are.”

According to LSA senior Eric TerBush, who contributes cannabis content to Detroit-based financial news organization Benzinga, creating a strong, all-encompassing system for cannabis, including criminal justice reform, happens incrementally.

“We didn’t get to recreational cannabis overnight, we didn’t get to a wide medical system overnight,” TerBush said. “It was small steps forward on the hard work of a lot of people who are very passionate, and don’t imagine expungement will be any different than that same hard work by those people stepping forward.” 

Hannah Agnew, LSA senior and president of the Student Executive Committee for the Prison Creative Arts Project, said while the package is a good start for tackling criminal justice reform, there is more work to be done.

“I’m definitely hopeful,” Agnew said. “It’s really important to be looking at disparities in drug laws, especially because there are so many folks that are incarcerated on minor drug laws. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that mass incarceration is also affecting people with more serious laws, and it’s not just people with those minor drug offenses that we should be looking at.”

Rabhi said the disproportionate nature of drug-related convictions makes expungement an economic inequality issue.

“If you have the resources to hire an attorney and work through the legal process, once you're eligible for expungement, it’s easy to get your record expunged,” Rabhi said. “But for the vast majority of Michiganders that don't have access to those resources, it’s a financial burden.”

TerBush said one concern he has about automatic expungement is that many marijuana convictions may not tell the whole story of the case.

“Something I’ve learned working with legislators is that a lot of the times in iffy cases, say, violent crime with possession, people who can will plead down to, say, felony possession,” TerBush said. “My only concern with an automatic expungement would be those people who might, for lack of a better phrase, slip through the cracks. Not that right now there’s a current system to really accommodate for that disparity, but my only concern would be actual dangerous people getting a clean slate completely.”

Rabhi said he was excited to see bipartisan support and collaboration for the package.

“We’re in a very unique time right now in the state of Michigan where Democrats have been pushing for criminal justice reforms for many years, but we finally have a Republican caucus where there is an appetite for looking at these types of reforms,” Rabhi said. “I’m really excited to be working in a bipartisan way with some of my Republican colleagues to push some of these initiatives forward.”