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Hundreds of Northeast Michiganders may be eligible for criminal expungements

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena attorney Joel Bauer displays paperwork for four people he’s helping through the expungement process as he explains the importance of setting aside a criminal conviction at his office on Wednesday.

ALPENA — Old crimes will be lifted from the shoulders of some local residents after legislation expanding expungement opportunities took effect earlier this week.

Dubbed the Clean Slate legislative package, the new laws allow people to ask a judge to remove certain convictions from the public record.

Hundreds of Northeast Michiganders could have old crimes set aside under the new laws, upping their chances of getting education, housing, and good jobs, said Alpena attorney Joel Bauer.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” Bauer said. “Should you have to be punished the rest of your life for those mistakes?”

The Clean Slate package expands the number of people who — if their request is granted — can legally state on applications for public benefits, housing, school, or employment that they have never been convicted of or arrested for a crime.

For the first time in Michigan, traffic offenses offenses can be set aside, or expunged, and more marijuana offenses are now eligible for expungement.

Drunk driving offenses are not currently eligible for expungement. A bill that would allow expungement of first-time drunk driving convictions passed the House with strong support in March.

Violent crimes don’t qualify for expungement. Police and courts will still have access to criminal histories.

In the past, expungement was only for people who had “one charge. That’s it. Period. One,” Bauer said.

The new laws increase the number of convictions eligible to be set aside and reduce the time someone has to wait to apply for expungement.

During the wait time, offenders can prove themselves worthy of a second chance, Bauer said.

In the two decades in which Bauer has been helping people get their convictions set aside, the process has become increasingly easier. The Clean Slate package, signed into law in October and officially in effect as of Sunday, expands options still more, paving the way for possibly hundreds of Alpena residents to strengthen their community by earning more and better providing for their families, Bauer said.

Many people now eligible for expungement committed a couple of dumb crimes decades ago and have been solid and productive members of the community since, Bauer said.

Since the passage of the Clean Slate bills, he’s received many phone calls from people now in their 40s who picked up misdemeanor charges when they were teenagers. Now parents themselves, they want their convictions set aside so they can chaperone field trips, hunt with their families, and teach their kids they don’t need to be defined by youthful mistakes.

He’s been surprised by the emotional component of expungement, Bauer said. At an expungement hearing, a person with a crime in their far past has a chance to talk about all the good choices they’ve made since that time. When the crime is lifted from their public record, a burden of guilt seems to lift from their shoulders, as well, Bauer said.

He’s defended many a young person who got drunk with friends and broke into hunting camps in search of alcohol — a crime he said is common in Northeast Michigan — ending up charged with multiple felonies all because of “one bad night.”

With the new Clean Slate laws in place, such crimes may not appear on job, college, and housing applications forever, as long as an offender owns up to their mistakes and keeps a clean record, Bauer said.

Most of the new legislation took effect on Sunday. A final new law, automating the expungement process for many people, won’t come into effect for at least two years.

The expungement process is complicated and takes months, and a judge’s approval is not guaranteed. But, for many people who have worked hard to be positive members of their community, the possibility of setting aside a past conviction is a chance to start over.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘I’ve changed my life for the better,'” Bauer said. “‘And I deserve that chance.'”

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