Ypsilanti Township resident Walter Griffin spent years trying to figure out how to get a 30-year-old felony theft charge expunged from his record until the perfect opportunity fell into his lap. He checked in with Michigan Works! Southeast and learned that the organization was hosting its first free expungement fair in an effort to guide individuals with criminal backgrounds through the expungement application process at almost no cost. Griffin filled out and sent in his application, received a court date, and ultimately appeared before a judge who decided to seal his record from the general public.
"I don’t want that stuff bothering me – the stuff that I did when I was younger, being stupid," Griffin says. "Then I told (the judge) that now I’m trying to better myself by getting a better paying job and just going on with my life and forget about the old nonsense stuff that I did when I was younger."
Michigan Works! Southeast offers a variety of resources to Washtenaw County residents who have criminal records or have returned from incarceration. Most recently, Michigan Works! has partnered with several local organizations to organize two free expungement fairs in the past year.
The first expungement fair was held Oct. 15 at the Washtenaw County Learning Resource Center, 4135 Washtenaw Ave., in Ann Arbor and the most recent one was held June 2 at Michigan Works! Southeast's Washtenaw Service Center, 304 Harriet St., in Ypsi. The next expungement fair hasn't been planned yet, but Michigan Works! Southeast service center manager Johnny Epps hopes to host another one later this year or early next summer.
In order to participate in an expungement fair, a person can have no more than one felony conviction and no more than two misdemeanor convictions, which must have occurred in Washtenaw County. At least five years must have passed since the person's date of conviction, release from incarceration, or discharge of probation or parole, whichever occurred most recently. People who have been convicted of certain crimes, like criminal sexual conduct, aren't eligible for expungement. Michigan Works! Southeast invites employers that will hire individuals with criminal backgrounds to the expungement fairs so they can meet with people who aren't eligible for expungement.
"We always encourage everybody to come and at least ask," says Michigan Works! Southeast career advisor Herb Fluker. "That way you know for sure, and then we can provide you with the necessary steps once we have checked your background to find out."
Almost 50 people have participated in the expungement fairs, but it's unclear how many of them were successful in having their records expunged. The University of Michigan started working with Michigan Works! Southeast in the spring to help collect data and survey participants.
Michigan Works! Southeast is able to waive most of the fees associated with an expungement application due to its partnerships with other organizations. The only fee that expungement fair participants have to pay is the $50 processing fee for sending the application to the Michigan State Police, compared to $1,500 or more for expungement through a law firm. Epps hopes to secure a grant to cover the $50 processing fee so the expungement fairs can be entirely free.
The expungement fairs are like a one-stop shop where individuals have access to everything they need to complete their expungement application. Participants can pull up their records with someone from the Washtenaw County public defender's office, get fingerprinted by Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office officials, and get pro bono legal advice from attorneys with Michigan Legal Help and Legal Services of South Central Michigan. Michigan Works! Southeast employees help participants fill out their applications and notarize them. Most people only have to mail their application and wait about three months until their court date, when a judge determines whether or not their record will be sealed.
"What makes us unique is basically we have all of the parties here all at the same time so you can come in off the street and go through the whole process and just have to drop it in the mail and wait for the state police to send the information to the court and for you to be contacted with a court date," Fluker says. "Before, you had to yourself go to all these different places and talk to different people. If you’re not familiar with the process, it may be daunting."
Even though the next expungement fair won't be held for at least several months, individuals with criminal histories can still visit the Washtenaw Service Center at any time for assistance with the expungement process. Epps says Michigan Works! received calls from as far away as Minnesota and Alabama after the first expungement fair.
Epps and Fluker have even been contacted by officials in other cities, like Detroit and Jackson, who want to use the expungement fair as a model for similar events in their own cities. An official with the Detroit mayor's office told Fluker that they should set up a meeting with representatives from cities across Michigan so they can replicate the program on a statewide level. Fluker thinks it could be possible to work with the legislature to tweak expungement law so more people are eligible.
"Having a record expunged could provide an individual with employment and even housing, so if you have individuals in the community who are employed and have somewhere to stay, the likelihood of them getting in trouble or being a nuisance in the community is less," Epps says. "It’s a big thing for the individuals, but it’s also a big positive for the community too."
Griffin had never been denied a job because of his criminal history, but it certainly limited the amount of viable opportunities for which he could apply. He says background checks are becoming more common for trucking jobs, which he's done in the past, so he wanted to be proactive and get his felony charge cleared before it really became an issue.
"It gives me more opportunities to get a job," Griffin says. "I’m more in the field now, where back in the day, I had to just pick something. Now I’m a little more open to get a little more. I don’t have a high school or college degree, but I’ve got a little bit more to offer now."
Griffin has set his sights on getting a higher-paying job and a GED. Since his record was expunged, he's been able to get a concealed pistol license (CPL), which he ultimately hopes will allow him to collect a better wage if he were to get a job as a security guard. He plans to seek additional help from Michigan Works! Southeast in reaching his employment and educational goals.
"They’re my people now," Griffin says. "I think they can help me with quite a bit of things. That’s why I always come here now for help. I said, 'Hmm, I got help with that. Maybe they can help me with a few more things.'"
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.