Legislation would expand expungement eligibility, which could mean better jobs
Yvonne Hasson is hoping for a second chance.
Sitting at home in New Boston, Hasson wears her glasses low on her nose as she flips through a stack of legal documents. They’ve piled up over the last 15 years, ever since she was labeled a felon.
“This brings up a lot of bad memories,” she says, thumbing through the manila folders.
How Hasson got here
Back in 2004, Hasson says a couple of girls were bullying her daughter. The prosecutor said she threatened them with her car. No one was injured, but Hasson was convicted of two counts of felonious assault with a dangerous weapon.
“This is the entire bench trail that went on," Hasson says, picking up one of the folders. "And I’ve kept it all because ... I’ve been trying for 15 years to get it off [my record], and so if anybody doesn’t believe what I say, I can say, 'Here’s the proof, here you go,' but it hasn’t helped.”
But under legislation before a state House committee, Hasson could ask a judge for an expungement. Hasson says that would change everything for her. And backers of the bills say hundreds of thousands of others could benefit too.
Life after her conviction
Hasson doesn't have a job right now, and feels stuck in the house she rents. The home has exposed concrete flooring in the living room and a crumbling driveway. Hasson says she’s always worked, but after the conviction, no one would hire her. She says she went on state assistance to survive.
“I can remember the first time that I used my food stamps at the grocery store," Hasson says. "I’m sure the clerk thought, 'What is wrong with this lady,' because tears were just running down my face. Because I had always prided myself that if my family needed financial help, I had a job. I would work two jobs sometimes. But I couldn’t do that anymore, so I had to be really a burden on society at that point."
Expungement: A way out of poverty
Supporters say offering more robust expungement options would be good for society, and the economy. Expungements have been shown to improve employment and housing options.
Law enforcement can still see someone’s convictions after an expungement. But the criminal record becomes invisible to employers and landlords. The new legislation would make more crimes eligible for expungement. It would shorten the waiting time to get misdemeanors expunged. And it would allow for some convictions to get automatically cleared from someone’s record.
State Representative David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, is sponsoring one of the six bills. He says they have bipartisan support.
“Everybody who understands the policy here sees it good for employment, it is powerful anti-poverty legislation,” LaGrand says.
The research appears to bear out LaGrand's statement. A University of Michigan study on expungements found in the first year after getting an expungement, a person’s wage goes up by 23%, on average.
“The public as a whole is better off if we get people with records into jobs and housing and schools, loans, all the things that will allow them to build productive lives,” says the study's co-author, Sonja Starr.
Opinions from law enforcement
Law enforcement and prosecutors say they’re on board with the idea of a more liberal expungement policy. But the groups have concerns with automatic expungements. Under an automatic process, people would not have to petition the courts. Certain criminal records would be automatically cleared through a digital algorithm after a period of time.
Bill Vailliencourt is president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. He says he wouldn’t trust an algorithm to differentiate someone who deserves expungement from someone who doesn’t.
"A generic malicious destruction of property might involve vandalizing a car, nobody would have a problem [with] expungements there, but it might also involve vandalizing a church with racial epithets, ” Vailliencourt says, adding that you’ve got to have real live humans making those decisions.
Hasson looking to the future
Yvonne Hasson would not qualify for an automatic expungement. But it would let her petition a judge to get her two felonies cleared.
Hasson says she wants to work, but the only work she can find with two felonies is in manual labor. She got sentenced to three years probation, no jail time. But she says her actual punishment has been much harsher.
“I have served a 15 year, so far, sentence. And if this expungement law does not pass, it’s a life sentence for me.”
Since her conviction, Hasson got her associate's degree in graphic design. She hopes one day she can apply for a job and know she’ll have a clean background check.