Legislature’s automatic expungement vote is good for future of state, economy

Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore residents sharing their stories.

A heartfelt congratulations needs to be shouted out to the Michigan Legislature. I’m not kidding. In September, your legislators did something that simply wasn’t possible just a few years ago. What was it? Your legislators passed a bipartisan package of bills that will allow people with certain criminal records the ability to have those records automatically set aside. Automatically. All someone has to do is stay out of trouble for 10 years, and those records will automatically disappear from the public record.

Rest assured, certain violent crimes, sex offenses, and repeat offenses will be exempt from this new freedom. Also, the judicial system will always be able to access those records. But for the rest of us, we won’t have the burden of judging someone over a mistake that happened more than 10 years ago.

Why is this important? The FBI estimates that over 29% of adult U.S. citizens have a criminal record. That equates to more than 2 million Michigan residents. That’s 2 million people who cannot fully participate in the opportunities and responsibilities that come with living in a free society. Today, when a potential employer conducts a background check, they can judge a person based on a stupid mistake that happened more than 10 years ago.

Shed the stigma

This Legislature has boldly allowed people to shed the stigma that comes from a criminal record. I know what you’re thinking; How can we ever be safe if we don't have this information? Statistics prove that returning citizens who have reformed their behavior for more than five years after completing their sentence have no more risk of breaking the law than someone who has never been arrested. Yet another statistic shows us that 18-year-old males are arrested at a rate of 16 per 1,000. That arrest rate is cut in half for every five years of advance in age. This shows us that most people naturally age out of criminal behavior.

These two factors give us the assurance that allowing someone’s record to be wiped away is not just morally right, it is also safe for our communities. A steady job and secure housing only increase that safety.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley used to talk about the shortsightedness of being judged solely on the worst mistake you ever made. Unfortunately, many in my political party were slow in recognizing why this was relevant. During my tenure in Lansing, the conventional wisdom still resisted any attempt at showing a degree of mercy toward a criminal offender. One excuse given was that this was a slap in the face to the victim of that crime. Today, we recognize that it’s not an either/or scenario. 

A better model

Redemption and restoration is often a better model in building safer communities. This should not be looked at as some hug-a-thug liberal philosophy. Granting more freedom is a conservative principle and has real long-term economic benefits. 

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, we were faced with the challenge of long-term economic stagnation due to a dwindling labor force. With the coming retirement of baby boomers, economic experts are still concerned. In order for our country to regain a robust manufacturing sector and a growing economy, former offenders need the ability to return to school or apply for better jobs without repeatedly being “outed” for their past. 

Having more of our neighbors share in the American dream means that they are also more likely to pay their fair share and less likely to be a financial drain on public resources.

Shifting attitude

This change is another example of the shift in attitude toward our criminal justice system. Michigan has made huge strides with a number of reforms that weren’t possible a few years ago. Consider the fact that in 2007, Michigan housed more than 51,000 people in its prisons. Today, that number has been reduced to approximately 35,000. The biggest bright spot out of that data is that Michigan’s recidivism rate has also dropped to one of the best in the country, and crime rates are still near record lows.

Like most public policy, this is not a black-and-white issue, and I am careful to not criticize those who cling to the old tough-on-crime mantra. As for me, my passion for this issue began as a means to lower public spending. 

While my view has evolved, I haven’t lost my core beliefs. In fact, with the exception of being pro-life, there is no issue where my conservative values overlap with my Christianity more than with the issue of criminal justice reform. 

I believe in forgiveness

My life may not always show it, but as a Christian I believe in forgiveness and that every human being was created in the image of God and deserves our compassion and respect. As a conservative, I still value the principles of limited government, accountability, and self- sufficiency. I also believe that if those two ever conflict, my Christian values should take precedent.

C.S. Lewis once said, “The problem with Christians is that they tend to love only those who are loveable.” As a community and as a country, we have an opportunity to serve those who may sometimes make us uncomfortable. By raising up those who need second chances, we can follow Christ’s example of serving the least of these among us and build more prosperous communities for everyone.

Thank you, Lansing. Keep making these bold decisions.

Joe Haveman is a father of five and a former State Representative, Ottawa County Commissioner, and Holland City Council member. The longtime Holland resident is the Director of Government Relations at Hope Network.
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