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Whitmer signs automatic expungement bills, giving many a second chance

News Photo by Julie Riddle Melanie Grace, an Alpena resident given hope by newly signed Clean Slate legislation, assembles metal barriers at her job at the North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center in Alpena.

ALPENA — “Everybody has life issues,” said a young woman in a soft Kentucky drawl as she got ready to go back to work.

A year ago, Melanie Grace didn’t know if she’d ever get a job because of a rocky past looming over her shoulder.

Now, as she assembles metal barriers — later to be used to corral Amazon packages — at the North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center in Alpena, she’s excited about the possibilities opened up by a signature scrawled on Monday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

A bill package, passed by Legislature and just signed into law by Whitmer, will make it faster and easier for people with a criminal record — and who have turned their lives around — to have those records hidden from public view.

That, for many, means a chance at building a stable life.

The bills, called the Clean Slate package, make expungement of criminal records automatic for many people who have committed crimes and have kept their records clean.

Certain offenses, such as those involving violence, weapons, or physical danger to society, are excluded from expungement.

While criminal records will still be visible to police and the courts, they will be hidden from potential employers — possibly leading to a hire.

Diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder as a teenager, Grace spent years in and out of jail in Kentucky and central Michigan, racking up three felonies and several misdemeanors.

When she tried to get a job, employers, knowing her history, turned her down.

She learned about the Sunrise Centre rehabilitation clinic in Alpena after she landed in the intensive care unit at a midstate hospital three times in three months because of her addiction.

After 105 days in Alpena’s clinic, Grace in September became one of the first residents of Fellowship House, Alpena’s newest sober-living home.

During her stay in Sunrise Centre, Grace was approached by Joe Garant, supported employment coordinator for NEMROC, who gave her a pair of shoes and helped her get back on her feet, offering her a job despite her criminal record.

NEMROC intentionally hires people with barriers that keep them from getting jobs, whether that be a criminal record, substance use disorder, or mental impairment.

The company has a high employee turnover rate, regularly losing workers as they slip back into addiction or crime, Garant said.

Then again, there was the NEMROC employee with a troubled past who worked hard, found a solid job in the community, got his associate degree, and bought his own home.

Other employees have done well, also, either moving on to better jobs or staying with the company for decades.

For those willing to show up and do their job, Garant — who grew up in Alpena and has connections in many areas — is ready to pick up the phone to advocate for his employees.

Many of his workers don’t have connections like that, he said — supporters who can be a bridge to a new employer or ask a judge to consider expunging a criminal record.

The process of expungement is laborious, requiring paperwork and fees that are too much for many people — part of the reason only 6.5% of people eligible to ask for expungement actually go through the process in the first five years of eligibility, according to a University of Michigan study.

The bill package signed into law this week will ease that burden, making Michigan the first state to expunge both misdemeanor and some low-level felony criminal records automatically after a designated number of years.

The legislation also makes more people eligible for expungement, increasing the number of convictions a person can have and still qualify.

The felonies on her record could stand between her and a career, Grace knows — a disheartening prospect that makes the news of the recent change to expungement laws very welcome.

A singer who loves gospel and the blues, she dreams of going back to school and finding a career in music — but her criminal record will make that difficult.

“It’s a huge barrier to believing in yourself,” Grace said.

Being employed at NEMROC, where she shows up faithfully for work every day — and, now, handed the hope that other employers may be willing to give her a job with her criminal record concealed — is a powerful step to her goal of creating a new and better life for herself.

Some businesses in Alpena do hire people with felonies to their name, Garant said. Others are reluctant to take that chance.

Hiring someone with a criminal record or history of drug abuse “may affect your bottom line,” Garant admitted.

“There are more negative outcomes, but they’re certainly worth it, when you see success,” Garant said. “When somebody makes it.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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