Giving Some Ex-Cons a Clean Record Makes Sense

This year, the rate at which Michigan offenders committed new crimes fell to its second lowest-level ever. This puts Michigan among the 10 states with the lowest rates for repeat offenders, but with 29.8 percent of Michigan offenders returning to prison within three years of their release, it’s still unacceptably high. The Michigan House is considering legislation that would make it easier for some offenders to clear their criminal history and obtain steady housing and employment, which are critical factors to successfully re-enter society and productive citizenship. Michigan lawmakers should pass this proposal as one step toward continuing to reduce the percentage of offenders caught in the revolving prison door.

In 2015, Michigan altered its expungement laws to make it easier for some offenders to wipe their criminal records clean. The possibility of expungement was previously only available to people with one conviction and two minor offenses on their record. Thanks to the recent changes, individuals can petition to have a felony expunged. But their record must contain no more than one felony and two misdemeanors. They may also have one or two misdemeanors expunged if their record contains only one or two misdemeanors. Many serious offenses — human trafficking, criminal sexual conduct, DUI, and some others — can never be expunged.

Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, has proposed further alterations to the law. He suggests automatically expunging certain offenses after 10 years if the criminal has not committed another offense during that time. This proposal provides a fresh start to offenders who have had to live with the stigma of criminality for years and even decades. It would be especially helpful for those who may not have the resources to pursue an expungement petition in the court system. A clean criminal history may open new avenues to employment — particularly in skilled professions with stringent licensure requirements. Too often, these requirements disqualify former offenders on the basis of a crime which may be decades old and wholly unrelated to the work covered by the license.

Research from the Manhattan Institute shows that an offender who has a job is 20 percent less likely to commit a new crime that results in jail time. In Maryland, where the re-offense rate was about 40 percent, not a single offender who stayed in a job for six months committed a new crime.

Reducing the rate at which offenders commit new crimes is good for public safety, and it saves a lot of money too. My back-of-the-napkin math estimates that averting a murder saves society nearly $2.5 million in costs and lost revenue, not counting the social trauma to the community where it took place. But it’s impossible to put a price tag on social cohesion and peace of mind. These two factors are reason enough to make sure that our government is performing up to an acceptable standard when it comes to enforcing the laws, administering justice and rehabilitating offenders.

Michiganders should feel good that thanks, in part, to our criminal justice system, fewer people are repeat offenders. With $2 billion spent in corrections alone, we should expect that prisoners will be prepared to reintegrate successfully once they return to society.

The stigma of a criminal record does not end when someone leaves the prison walls. To the extent that this stigma contributes to further crimes, we should carefully consider when to let it go. Expunging relatively low-level offenses from the records of offenders with very few convictions in the decade after being labeled a criminal is a step in the right direction. Especially when you consider how far that step might end up taking those to whom we give a clean slate.