By Deborah M. Walker
LANSING, MI – It happens time and time again, a convicted felon finds the perfect job, house, or school. He (or she) fills out the application and submits it for a background check. If this individual had a clear record, the results of the application would be approved, but this person has a criminal conviction and is, therefore, more than likely to be denied. Having a criminal conviction is usually devastating to deal with, however, there is hope on the horizon.
In September of 2021, the Lansing NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) donated $50,000 to Legal Services of South Central Michigan (LSSCM) to aid in the expungement of criminal convictions. Expungement is the process of having a criminal conviction erased from a record. This donation is to help end disparities in the criminal justice system and give those with convictions a second chance, said Curtis O’Neal, Legal Redress Chair for the Lansing NAACP.
“So part of that disparity rests in the fact that a lot of individuals have felony convictions and do not have the opportunity [to expunge them],” argued O’Neal.
O’Neal said the donation was inspired by the 6 Game Changers put in place by the national NAACP. The 6 Game Changers address the main causes of inequality in the African American community according to the NAACP.
6 Game Changers
Economic Stability – Every person will have an equal opportunity to achieve economic success and financial security.
Education – A free, high-quality, public education for all.
Health – Everyone will have equal access to affordable, high-quality, health care and racially disparate health outcomes will end.
Public Safety And Criminal Justice – Equitable dispensation of justice for all.
Voting Rights And Political Representation – Protect and enhance voting rights and fair representation.
Expand Youth And Adult Engagement – Young adult engagement will be key in policy research, development representation, and advocacy on all levels.
The Game Changers help remove the economic, housing, education, health care, and job barriers many convicts, especially those of color face. Expungement will have lasting, positive, effects on families and the community, said O’Neal.
The NAACP has been an integral component of the Civil Rights movement since the organization began in 1909. The $50,000 donation is a statement of the commitment the organization has towards the continued advancement of the Black community.
The trouble with re-entry
The expectation for those leaving jail or prison is to abstain from any criminal activity. However, for this to happen, ex-offenders need to be free from barriers to successful re-entry such as problems getting a job or obtaining housing, explained O’Neal.
“Most of your DOC’s (Department of Corrections) say hey look, a person does the crime, they do the time and they get out, but we all know that part about getting out and staying out means that they need to have opportunities for successful re-entry,” said O’Neal. “The NAACP is striving to ensure that we can provide individuals that opportunity to get a fresh start.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% [this is] higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.”
A commitment to help
Although there was an expungement clinic hosted by the City of Lansing in September of 2021, O’Neal said that event was not the inspiration for the donation.
“The NAACP has been looking at this for some time and we were encouraged and glad to see that the City of Lansing was doing an expungement clinic and we welcomed them to do more,” exclaimed O’Neal. “The NAACP across the country has been engaging in expungement clinics, criminal justice reform opportunities, dialog panels, things of that nature,” stated O’Neal.
O’Neal said LSSCM was chosen as the recipient for the donation because they expressed an interest in the expungement clinics and their attorneys had previous experience helping people with expungements.
The Legal Services of South Central Michigan had a heart for this particular work. They had a mission behind it so we felt because of that mission and some of the previous work they had done, that it made sense to be able to partner with them,” explained O’Neal.
O’Neal said the expungement donation is important because many people with convictions do not have the money or the resources to have an expungement completed, and they cannot claim that they are indigent (too poor to pay for an attorney).
There are more people in need of low-cost legal services than there are attorneys available, explained O’Neal. To help incentivize attorneys, the donation will be partially spent on a $500 stipend to pay attorneys for helping out.
“So the whole thinking behind that was we were going to give five hundred dollars, or at least provide some money, a stipend, not a lot, to be able to speak to some of these attorneys to step up and take on the case and at the same time provide their firm with some positive PR (public relations),” declared O’Neal.
Sarah Munro, pro-bono Manager at Michigan Advocacy Group (the organization that administers LSSCM) said the stipend paid to the attorney is much less than what legal representation for an expungement case typically costs.
“Most of the time that they [the attorney] will spend on the case will not be covered by the $500 incentive,” Munro explained.
The attorney fee is a flat rate and includes an unlimited number of cases, regardless of the number of courts the pro bono attorney files in. Munro said there are different courts such as circuit court or district court. The attorney will file cases in any court covered in Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton Counties. For help outside of the included counties, Munro stated that filing in those counties is at the attorney’s discretion.
“This is Michigan law, so this does not pertain to any Federal or out of state convictions, but if a client has a case that is outside of our area, then we work with our other Legal Aid partners throughout the state to make sure that case is transferred to them. If the pro bono attorney wants to assist the client outside of their service area, they are more than welcome to, and I am confident that the NAACP will honor that pro bono fee for wherever in Michigan,” Munro added.
Who is eligible?
Munro said never before has expungement been more important, that is because of the new laws in Michigan that were passed in April 2021. According to michigan.gov, Department of Attorney General, “Big changes are coming to… expand the types and numbers of offenses that can be expunged and, eventually, to provide for the “automatic” expungement of certain convictions without the need for anyone to affirmatively petition or apply to the convicting court for such an action.”
Because of these changes, there are many who are eligible for expungement than under the previous law. Munro claimed that there are estimates that up to one million Michiganders are now eligible for expungement.
Because LSSCM is federally funded, there are income and asset requirements that an individual must meet. Applicants must make less than 200% of the poverty level. Also, the donation only covers individuals in Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton Counties. However, LSSCM services 13 counties in southern Michigan. There is still expungement help through LSSCM for the other counties, but individuals not living in these three counties are not eligible for the donated funds from the Lansing NAACP.
How the process works
Those that are interested in obtaining expungement services from the LSSCM, must first go online and fill out an application, explained Munro. After that, the applicant will be contacted by an attorney within a few months.
“Our office, or our partner Michigan Works, runs an ICHAT on that person and the pro-bono or in-house attorney reviews their ICHAT and then [calls them] about whether the ICHAT is accurate or not,” said Munro.
ICHAT stands for Internet Criminal History Access Tool and is used to assess an individual’s criminal history. Sometimes there are mistakes on the ICHAT and there are convictions that were not included in the search that can affect eligibility, explained Munro. For that reason, it is important for the attorney to speak to the client even after checking the ICHAT.
After the review of the ICHAT and an attorney interview, if the client is eligible for expungement they are instructed as to what the next steps are. The next steps include gathering certain documents that are required for filing the application. These documents include obtaining a certified record and getting a lien check from the Michigan State Police. After the required documents are received, the case is filed in the appropriate courthouse, said Munro.
The donation from the NAACP covers the cost of fingerprinting and covers the attorney fee. It does not cover anything else such as court debt. Munro said LSSCM does not have the resources to cover court debt, however, debt to the court has not been a big issue for most clients.
“Generally we have not been seeing clients who have a debt to the court that is hindering them from obtaining expungement,” informed Munro.
Munro said the money for the expungement is available now and the LSSCM is already seeing clients who have had their fees covered by the donation. Munro said so far she has not seen anyone eligible for expungement denied.
After the donation
Once the donation from the NAACP is spent, expungement services from the LSSCM are still possible. However, the free fingerprinting and the $500 stipend for the attorney will not be available.
“We will still handle these cases after the donation is spent, and we will still assist with the legal aspects of their case,” Munro declared.
O’Neal said there is the possibility of more expungement donations, yet, that depends on the outcome of the current donation. The NAACP would like to see positive benefits from the $50,000 donation before more money is given.
“We want to see our benefit and what the outcome would be from this fifty thousand dollar opportunity. But we have been talking about furthering that opportunity contingent upon the outcome of this [expungement] right now,” stated O’Neal.
O’Neal said as cannabis becomes legalized there will be more states throwing out marijuana convictions, which equals more people eligible for expungement and therefore a greater need for expungement services. O’Neal hopes to have more expungement clinics throughout the year but that is based on the NAACP’s Game Changers.
The $50,000 donation to the LSSCM, from the NAACP, is a lifeline for so many in need of a clean slate. Those that have paid their debt to society now have the chance to re-enter the community on equal terms and under the same conditions and rights that those without a conviction enjoy.
“Expungements can be life-changing for our clients and for their families. It allows them access to housing that they were, possibly, previously denied. It allows them to increase their family’s financial stability,” Munro concluded.