By Marisa Schultz, The Detroit News.
More than 1,100 Michigan ex-cons had their criminal records erased in the first six months of this year, an almost 60 percent increase that coincided with heightened scrutiny of school and health employees statewide.
With their records expunged by judges, former criminals escape detection of background checks that might have banned them from sensitive jobs or made it harder for them to find work. They also can legally tell potential employers that they have no convictions.
In the first six months of 2006, 1,124 records were erased from the 1,258 ex-cons who applied — about a 60 percent increase from the 708 ex-cons who had their records erased in the first six months of 2005 out of 939 who applied.
The growing practice amplifies the divide between those who believe that former convicts deserve a chance at redemption and those who want access to the criminal histories of educators, coaches, maids, nannies, neighbors, health care workers, other employees — or virtually anyone else.
“It’s a fine line. Should an applicant have the right to a clean start? But shouldn’t an employer have the right to protect its business, its assets and the general public?” said Kevin Klimas, president and founder of Clarifacts, a Phoenix-based employment screening firm. “There is an argument on both sides of the fence.”
Melodee Bush has seen both sides of the argument, but falls on the side of public access.
“People have a right to know who you are dealing with,” said Bush, 33, a Detroit mom who relied on day care for her two children. She has a family member seeking an expungement. “It gives you a false sense of security. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Yet as lawmakers have required background checks for more employees, more lawbreakers have gone to judges to have their felonies or misdemeanors erased.
The increase was especially apparent in March, April and May, after the Michigan State Police released to districts the results of background checks of all public school employees.
“These were our highest three months ever,” said Shanon Akans, spokeswoman for the State Police, which removes records from public view.
First offenders get a break
Michigan is one of a dozen states that permit expungement of adult felony offenses. It’s one of four, along with New Jersey, Rhode Island and Ohio, that limit this privilege to first offenders, said Margaret Colgate Love, former U.S. Justice Department pardon attorney whose book, “Relief From the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction” will be released later this year.
“Ever since 9/11, there has been almost an obsession with knowing people’s backgrounds,” said Love, whose book offers a state-by-state guide to expungement policies. “As long as you have the invasive record checks, you can’t get jobs and you can’t get housing. There has to be a way to get out from under this. There has to be a time when you’ve paid your debt to society.”
To be eligible in Michigan, a person can have only one conviction and has to stay out of trouble for five years after sentencing or incarceration, whichever is later. The person cannot have been convicted of a serious sex crime, a traffic offense or a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
There has been an effort in Lansing to liberalize the requirement, making the wait two years for misdemeanor convictions. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Mary Waters, D-Detroit, has passed the House and is expected to be taken up soon in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Waters said.
Around Metro Detroit, requests to set aside convictions are steady.
“For the most part, these are people who have come to the point in their lives where they need this to be a nonpublic record,” said Anica Letica, assistant Oakland County prosecuting attorney in the appellate division. “They really have turned their lives around.”
Such was the case for Titiana Tillbrooke, who was arrested at age 19 for writing checks worth $1,200 to herself from her employer. Convicted of uttering and publishing, she served time in prison. Upon her release, she couldn’t find work.
“On the inside I was dying,” said Tillbrooke, now 35. “But I had to live for my husband and kids. I wished I could die. I wished I could get out of this. Why am I being held back?”
Once her conviction was expunged, Tillbrooke received many job offers. She used the same resume as before. But this time, employers called her back after the background check phase of an interview, she said.
“It was a change from night to day,” said Tillbrooke, now an accounting assistant. “It was awesome. People actually wanted me.”
Easy process rankles some
While there’s no guarantee a judge will set aside a conviction, the odds are very good and the process remarkably simple.
Using a little-publicized 1965 state law, ex-convicts can fill out a one-page application, pay $50 and get fingerprinted to verify they haven’t had further criminal convictions. They then go before a judge for a hearing.
Judges around the state granted nearly 90 percent of the set-aside applications this year, a fact that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“It’s harder for a law-abiding citizen to get their name changed in this state,” said Allison Muhammed, who faced many roadblocks when she changed her name from Dennis.
People convicted of any crime should not be allowed to care for children or the elderly, said Muhammed, whose children are in day care in Detroit. But it’s upsetting that parents would never know with certainty whether a caretaker is felony-free, she said.
Timothy Romisch, a former teacher at Southfield Christian School, was one of 134 whose request was denied between January and June. He petitioned to have his 1986 conviction for attempting to accost a 14-year-old female Holland student for immoral purposes removed.
Now his teaching certificate is being revoked.
On the flip side, one Armada Schools cafeteria worker easily had her shoplifting conviction set aside, as it’s formally called.
“I paid $50 in court fees and I went into the courtroom,” said Diane Stringer, 47. “The judge said, ‘My, this has been on (your record) for a long, long time.’ And before I could say anything, she said, ‘We will expunge it from “ the record and you can leave now.’
Stringer shoplifted at Universal Mall in Warren when she was 17. It was a stupid mistake, she said, but she hasn’t been in trouble since.
Are checks undermined?
When deciding whether to set aside convictions, judges want to know if the individuals have bettered themselves, said Macomb Chief Circuit Judge Antonio Viviano. If they have, is it useful for an employer to know a person’s criminal history if, in a judge’s opinion, he is no longer a threat? Viviano asked.
The answer is yes, said Craig Lawrence of United Risk Partners, a Chicago area firm that does background checks for employers. “Just because a judge says yes, it’s OK to expunge records, that doesn’t mean that person won’t engage in the behavior in the future,” he said.
Expunged records undermine the purpose of background checks, Lawrence said.
“The whole point is that past conduct and behavior are predictable tools to determine what future behavior will be,” he said. “Human beings are creatures of habit.”
You can reach Marisa Schultz at (313) 222-2310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.