EDGE Spotlight: One STEP from a New Start in Wayne County

People, particularly young people, make mistakes at times. The American culture can be forgiving in some circumstances, however. That's where Wayne County's STEP program can help.

"The STEP program removes barriers to employment and improves the quality of life for people," according to Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano. "These individuals become contributing members to the economic vitality of our society."

STEP -- which stands for Second Chance Thru Expungement Program -- assists one-time, non-violent offenders living in Wayne County with having their conviction expunged. Having a criminal record often prevents people from getting better job opportunities, owning homes and getting into professional programs. The STEP Program is designed to help remove these barriers so that citizens can have full access to the workforce.

"When you do something when you're 17-years-old, by the time you're 27 or 37, my goodness, you're a different person," said Michelle Deibis, Project Consultant for Wayne County's STEP. "Our program offers people a second chance for those who have made a wrong decision in the past. People deserve a positive future."

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano launched STEP in March 2008. To be eligible for the county's STEP program, you must be a Wayne County resident; have only one conviction (felony or misdemeanor) on your record; and the applicant's record must be clear for five years before they can apply for expungement, including any violations still under probation. The state statute does not permit expungement for certain crimes including criminal sexual conduct, drunk driving, domestic violence, and felonies involving a firearm.

"Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of applicants are not eligible for expungement based on state statute," according to Rick Jones, Manager of the STEP Program. "But the program offers wrap-around services for both eligible and ineligible applicants."

A typical expungement can cost upwards of $500. Each case is different. Some cases move quickly through the process and others take more time. The STEP program covers all costs for clients except when a case does not involve a conviction within Wayne County. To date, approximately 4,400 people have applied to the program, and a total of 54 had their records successfully expunged.

To promote the STEP Program, Jones, who grew up in the projects, asked his boyhood friend, Greg Matthis, to help get the word out about STEP during the program's inception. Mathis is the star of Judge Mathis, a nationally syndicated reality-based court show that can be seen in Detroit on WWJ channel 62 and WKBD channel 50. As youths, Jones said he and Mathis got involved with gangs and ran with the wrong crowd. Mathis ended up in front of a judge that gave him a second chance. According to Jones, Mathis is living proof that second chances can pay off. "You just can't broad brush everybody the same in our legal system," Jones said.

Jones said STEP has also partnered with Wayne County Community College's (WCCC) Project MEN -- Male Education Network – a 12-week career assessment and job preparation course that supplements the STEP process. Approximately 300 STEP applicants have been referred to Project MEN, and 170 have completed the course. And the partnership has already paid off. According to Jones, five participants went on to start their own cleaning businesses, and STEP was even able to help them financially with start-up money. "Out of my limited budget, I asked County Executive Robert Ficano to let me try this," Jones said. "I'm trying to instill hope. You can make hope grow."

Jones said he is working hard to find other funding mechanisms to support STEP and to help others with job placement. He is applying for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act monies to build a housing deconstruction program with an environmental component that he can refer STEP applicants. STEP is also doing outreach and building a list of applicants which, eligible or not for expungement, could participate in the initiative. The initiative would involve a partnership between a variety of organizations including Good Will Industries, the Work First Program, local churches, and WCCC.

STEP is just one of many programs the County has initiated to help citizens lead productive lives and better provide for themselves and their families. Along with the County's other Community Development initiatives and Health and Human Services programs, we are taking a holistic approach to building human capital and transforming our neighborhoods.

STEP is part of Community Corrections in the Wayne County Department of Children and Family Services. Learn more about STEP at www.waynecounty.com or call 313.833.4587.

Pat Dostine is a Community Development Manager with Wayne County's Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE).

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