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State officials will automatically allow for certain convictions to be expunged in an effort to remove hurdles to jobs and housing.
A new system that will automatically expunge Michigan residents’ criminal records based on certain criteria means that as many as 1 million people will have easier access to jobs, housing and education.
Run by the Michigan State Police (MSP), the expungement process has historically been labor-intensive: Offenders submit an application, MSP reviews it and the Department of Attorney General responds after completing a criminal history report. And then there’s an expungement hearing. All told, the process can take up to eight months, according to the department. Because of that complexity, almost 95% of people who are eligible don’t apply, according to Safe and Just Michigan (SJM), an advocacy association.
But starting in April, the automatic expungement mandate of Michigan’s 2021 Clean Slate law will allow for certain convictions to be expunged without an application. MSP will use an algorithm coded to the statutory eligibility criteria that will generate a list of convictions eligible for expungement each month, and the courts will use their case management systems to update the files. Assaults, serious misdemeanors and those involving serious injury or the death of another person are among the ineligible convictions.
“The courts will … ingest this bulk data and apply it to move the relevant records from public to non-public [view] in their systems,” said John Cooper, executive director of SJM. Currently, the state has 20 systems, but a statewide one may be in the works.
A single system simplifies these so-called clean slate efforts, said Jesse Kelley, national campaign manager of the Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), an organization that advocates for arrest and conviction record clearance and offers a bipartisan policy model that uses technology to automate such clearance.
“It is easier when states, particularly when counties, can talk to one another using the same software,” Kelley said. “That makes it really easy to just implement the code.”
CSI has partnered with Code for America (CfA) on the effort. They work with states and counties to use their existing software and information technology, although there are times that something new is necessary, Kelley said.
As a result, the automated expungement systems are “as secure as the current system of maintaining records in each state,” she said. “We’re not proposing anything that would make government records even more vulnerable, but a clean slate [system] is also not going to protect records, which are held by the government. That’s just not a function of what we’re trying to do.”
Most of the work doesn’t require CfA to access the data, said Alia Toran-Burrell, Clear My Record program director at CfA, adding that it can use data it got through a contract with pilot counties. “We had a framework for what the data looked like and could then create a product where we would ship the product to district attorneys, but we actually never saw the data that the district attorneys inputted into the product,” Toran-Burrell said.
The technology breaks down into three components, she added. First is eligibility determination, second is notifying agencies of the need to update records and third is updating systems so that the records are changed based on the policy.
In California, CfA focused on that first step. The state was the first to pass a law that would automatically clear certain marijuana convictions. It required that district attorneys review a list of convictions that might be eligible from the California Department of Justice. “CfA developed technology that would allow district attorneys to upload their bulk dataset that they received, press a few buttons and receive a spreadsheet of everybody who was eligible based on the criteria that they had chosen,” Tora-Burrell said. “It was essentially completing their portion of the upper law in a matter of minutes instead of somebody having to spend days and weeks manually going through.”
In Utah, which is clearing 600,000 records, CfA helped with entity resolution, or identity checks, because names may be misspelled or addresses may be inaccurate. “They had to make sure that they knew who a person was in a system,” Toran-Burrell said. “Our role was to make sure that this person was actually this person.”
CSI and CfA have worked with 20 states on clean slate laws and technology in the past four years. Pennsylvania was the first to pass such a law in 2018, which means its court system was automatically sealing records—making them unviewable by the public but accessible to law enforcement and courts—throughout the pandemic, Kelley said.
“In March 2020, when courthouses and district attorneys’ offices switched to virtual, there was this huge backlog of cases,” she said. “But in Pennsylvania, in March 2020 alone, 2.8 million records were still cleared through an automatic process,” making that many more people eligible to work amid a workforce shortage.
Generally speaking, people whose records are expunged see “a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories,” with wages increasing by 22% within a year, according to “Expungement of Criminal Convictions,” a 2020 study by the University of Michigan Law School. It also found that 96% of people who received expungements in Michigan are not convicted of any crime again. All of that goes toward improving communities.
“Right now, the underemployment of people who were formerly incarcerated costs the U.S. economy about $78 billion in gross domestic product annually,” CSI’s Kelley said.
The clean slate movement is gaining traction. CSI is working with Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Texas and Oregon, which are expected to introduce clean slate legislation, Kelley said.
Additionally, companies are coming up with technology to support clean slate efforts. For instance, GCOM’s Computerized Criminal History records management system supports the ability for full and partial record sealing.