Michigan’s newly enacted expungement laws changes the requirements for those convicted of low-level felonies. The argument behind it: to help offenders get jobs and housing.
Prior to Governor Rick Snyder’s signing of the bill, criminal records with one felony – with the exception of sexual assaults, murders and armed robberies – and one “major” misdemeanor could not be expunged. The new bill changes that. Criminal records that contain one felony and up to two misdemeanors can be expunged. In these cases, only the felony may be erased. Although the misdemeanors remain on the record, that can mean the difference between being able to advance into a better position at a job, or being able to vote in an election.
The amended law, however, does not allow for driving related offenses to be expunged. For example, drunk driving and driving on a suspended license will remain on the criminal record.
The wave of new legislation enacted by many states regarding expungement has been noticed by the Vera Institute of Justice‘s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. In March, the institute reported that since 2009, 41 states and D.C. had enacted legislation related to expungements – 31 of which “loosened” restrictions on the sealing of criminal records.
The impact of such legislation can be measured in several ways. First, the rate of recidivism, or the rate at which previously convicted individuals recommit crimes, must be taken into account. It may be to early to tell if new expungement legislation has led to higher crime rates. However, some states allow for prosecutors to make recommendations on sentencing based on previous criminal records – even those that have been expunged.
Second, a way to measure the benefits of expungement must be created. Unless those who have had expungements are tracked in their job and housing pursuits, measuring the increases in opportunity is guaranteed to be difficult. This is a problem since an expungement seals the criminal record from public view.
So, how can institutes, like Vera, gain access to this important information? It seems that they must rely on those who have received expungement services to self-report their results. This can lead to problems of biases and inaccurate results when making conclusion about research. An alternative might be letting law enforcement, like probation departments, report on the successes of expungement. But that seems to significantly defeat the purpose of expunging a record and leaving the purview of law enforcement.