Students, experts optimistic after Whitmer signs criminal justice reform laws

Saturday, October 24, 2020 - 3:44pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Signs Bipartisan sign “Clean Slate” criminal justice reform bills on Oct. 12.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Signs Bipartisan sign “Clean Slate” criminal justice reform bills on Oct. 12. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Executive Office

Students and activists see the state’s recent criminal justice reform efforts as a step forward.

On Oct. 12, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer passed “Clean Slate” legislation, automatically granting expungements and opportunities for employment to previously incarcerated people. Many have lauded the legislation as an achievement in criminal justice reform.

“I was really grateful to see the passage of this bill,” said Nora Krinitsky, interim director of the Prison Creative Arts Project. “It’s a really important step forward, including for people who have had contact with the criminal justice system in our society.” 

Michigan is one of 15 states to add automatic expungement into the criminal justice process. 

“Because of a study going on at University of Michigan, we know only about 6.5% of people who are eligible for expungement currently seek one,” State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said. “And so making it automatic, taking that paperwork burden away from both the applicants and from our local courts was important.” 

Whitmer created a bipartisan team to draft the expungement bill, building support on both sides of the aisle. 

Engineering senior Kirk Turrentine is the director of M-Mates, a student organization that raises awareness about the criminal justice system. Turrentine said the box that asks applicants to check whether they have been charged with a felony makes it difficult for many people to become employed after leaving prison.

“The type of jobs that people who are getting out of prison are eligible to apply for are the type of jobs where (business owners) see the felony box and if it’s been checked, they immediately just throw your application away,” Turrentine said. 

In a survey done by Global HR Research, 96% of all employers conduct some form of background check on job applicants, which can create a barrier in finding employment after leaving prison.

In August, the University announced it will no longer require applicants to mark a box asking if they have a misdemeanor charge filed against them. The school will still ask applicants about felony charges in which the University has “an interest.” 

Turrentine spent five years in the Florida prison system for a few misdemeanor crimes in Michigan. In his last year of prison, Turrentine decided he wanted to return back home and pursue an education. Turrentine started out at Washtenaw Community College and then transferred into the University’s College of Engineering. 

He said he had to pay $200 total to send in his criminal records to the University on top of the application fee.

“I had to fill out so much extra paperwork,” Turrentine said.  “I had to pay to get all my records sent just to get into school on top of all the other fees and Michigan doesn’t cut in for that. And I’m already in a compromised position.” 

LSA junior Alexander Koons is a member of the Alba Project, a student organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated individuals reenter into society. Koons said allowing for a smooth reentry process after time in prison can help reduce recidivism.

“Initially, I was surprised that the Michigan state legislature could even work with Gretchen Whitmer,” Koons said. “Some of the legislature wasn’t exactly open to providing the kinds of things that Whitmer was looking for, and the fact that this successful bill was criminal justice-related was even more surprising.” 

Krinitsky said the elimination of the application process not only assists those who were previously incarcerated but also makes applying to jobs and leases easier by removing past offenses from people’s records. According to Krinitsky, there are three basic needs for people who are coming out of prison: employment, shelter and education. Most applications for jobs, leases and educational opportunities require criminal background checks, posing a challenge for formerly incarcerated people.

“Having a criminal record creates so many hurdles to the kinds of support that folks need when they come home from prison,” Krinitsky said. 

Koons said returning home from prison is a culture shock for many formerly incarcerated people.

“You go from being in prison for however many years,” Koons said. “And then you just go back to a whole different world.” 

Irwin said everyone in society benefits from successful reentry programs. 

“When people pay their debt to society, it is in all of our interests to create an environment where those folks can put their lives back on track and keep them on track,” Irwin said. 

Having a criminal record also makes establishing a life in Ann Arbor difficult, according to Krinitsky.

“Having these barriers to accessing housing and other necessities really set a lot of people up to fail,” Krinitsky said. “So I’m excited to achieve this. The Clean Slate will start to address that problem.”

Irwin said he is hopeful that Michigan will be able to make more important criminal justice reforms in the coming years. 

“Criminal justice reform is one of things that is going relatively well in Lansing,” Irwin said. “I think some of the perspectives of some of my conservative colleagues have changed over the course of recent years and there is a fair amount of bipartisan work happening on this issue, and that’s very exciting.” 

Turrentine said the passing of the expungement bill is a step toward reform that could push other states to adopt similar legislation.

“We need to keep implementing these types of progressive policies and getting these types of people elected that will vote on these types of things and pass them,” Turrentine said. “Governor Whitmer has done a great service to people like me and others that have compromised positions.”

Daily News Contributor Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.


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