A 'Clean Slate'

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Groups mobilize to help residents expunge criminal records

By Melanie Deeds
Legal News

As soon as Michigan’s new “Clean Slate” laws took effect this spring, Jodi Switalski hit the ground running.

The Macomb County attorney, former assistant prosecutor and onetime Oakland County district court judge, had spent months putting together an initiative to offer free legal services to help area residents erase some of their criminal convictions from public records.

“We really want to make it possible for people who don’t have the funds to hire a lawyer,” she said. 

Switalski and Switalski Law & Consulting PLLC have partnered with CARE of Southeastern Michigan, Turning Point, Staying Social While Distancing (SSWD), and other organizations to reach out to those who could benefit from sponsored expungements. Several local churches belonging to the Macomb County Ministerial Alliance are involved as well.

The various groups promote social justice and serve those in recovery, veterans, and victims of violence. The organizations help identify individuals who lack the means to pursue a path on their own that could eventually lead to clearing their records, according to Switalski.

“This endeavor seeks to break down the stigma and barriers associated with a record of convictions while increasing opportunities for employment, restoring a sense of independence and purpose for an individual, and also increasing voter eligibility among many other benefits,” Switalski said.

Patty Wagenhofer, chief operating officer of CARE of Southeastern Michigan, said her organization was asked to submit names of individuals who might benefit from the expungement program.
“The effort creates freedom for others in ways they could not previously have imagined,” she said. “The thought of the community coming together to make this happen is exciting.”

Wagenhofer said the work of Switalski and others involved in this program “is remarkable in so many ways, and also a reflection of the passion we all have as community members to create a life for people where they can become their best selves.”

Adrienne Gasperoni, CARE community organizer, said coalitions “work to educate community members on the best practices of preventing and healing from addiction.

“A best practice is to offer rehabilitation and treatment versus punishment,” she said. “The community does not benefit from segregating and limiting members who have made past mistakes.”

The new laws that took effect April 11 expand expungement for up to three felonies and unlimited misdemeanors, excluding some weapons or assault offenses as well as felonies that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Switalski said she has fielded hundreds of calls and opened several dozen cases thus far. Her services are donated, while the organizations are covering the costs for various fees involved in the process.

The new clients are overwhelmingly grateful, Switalski said, adding that it is immensely gratifying for those who are giving them a hand.

“There has not been a single person in the myriad we talked to both in person and over Zoom that has not given us a lump in our throat and a tear in our eyes,” said Switalski.

Under the previous laws, residents with up to two misdemeanors or one felony conviction for certain crimes were eligible to pursue clearing their record if they have not committed other offenses for five years or more.

When the new laws took effect, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said several hundred thousand state residents might be eligible under the new expungement rules.

The process can be extensive, intimidating, laborious, and costly, Switalski said. Certified copies — ranging from $75 for a single expungement up to $200 to $250 for multiple expungements — must be obtained from various courts across the state.

“It can take a good amount of time and effort to look through records carefully,” she said. “It can be very time-consuming.”

In addition, the new laws are nuanced, Switalski said, and “the nuances are not black and white. It’s not easy. There a kind of a zig and a zag to it and you need to know what you are doing.”

Before applying for expungement, a person must have completed their sentence, probation or parole and various statutory waiting periods apply. If an application is filed, then denied, the applicant must wait an additional three years to reapply.

Needless to say, Switalski is thrilled to be a part of an effort that helps people take advantage of the new laws. She’s bolstered as well to see the changing attitudes and laws surrounding those who have committed crimes and paid their debt to society.

“Crimes and offenses are not just black and white and there’s so much data, both statewide and nationally, about the failure of the system to rehabilitate and the excessive rates of incarceration for low-risk offenders,” she said.

Switalski said it’s time “to reframe justice and what it looks like” in modern society.

“There’s a better way to take a look at how we can treat someone who has committed a criminal act. We have to look at what intent is in the law. There are places around the country that are doing this and doing it successfully,” she said.

Switalski noted that the new legislation is “good but not perfect, but we can make a real argument for people to break down barriers to bettering their lives and really attacking systemic issues as racism in inequalities and bias, how people get jobs, how people have a sense of independence and viability, increase voter eligibility, a lot of different things.”

Along with this effort, Switalski said she is hopeful of putting together a “Clean Slate” expungement fair during the summertime in conjunction with Safe & Just Michigan.

These projects stem in part from Switalski’s belief that “we all do better when we all do better,” a seemingly simple yet profound concept.

“That’s it. Period,” she said. “This is my way of trying to give back and to do my part. I’m tremendously blessed. I love having the opportunity to do this and help people really stand on their own two feet and really have a clean slate.”



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