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'A small chance of hope': The journey to a clean slate begins at Grand Rapids Expungement Fair

More than 150 people started the process of clearing their records Saturday.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Last year, Michigan lawmakers signed Clean Slate into law. While some of the legislation took effect in April of 2021, the full breadth of the expungement law won't be in effect until 2022.

Clean Slate is all about expungement, which is wiping records clean of convictions after a certain amount of time has passed since the punishment was served. But getting that expungement processed can be a hassle, especially nailing down a court date.

That's why Legal Aid of West Michigan co-hosted an expungement fair Saturday morning. Volunteer attorneys helped more than 150 people with convictions take the first step towards a renewed freedom.

A conviction on someone's record can limit their access to housing, work, loans and other resources.

"It's really hard to feel like it's justice being served when you've done everything that you can do," said Anthony Chambers, "and then you're still treated like this for past mistakes."

Chambers has a domestic violence charge from 2012 on his record. He said it was started from a misunderstanding and got blown out of proportion. Nearly a decade later, he hasn't been able to live in the area he wants to raise his kids in due to his record.

By the time Clean Slate is fully in effect, expungements will be automatic for eligible misdemeanors after seven years, and eligible non-assaultive felonies after 10 years. That won't happen until 2023, so for now, expungement fairs are starting the process for hundreds across the state.

“Individual after individual after individual in their communities," said Steve Grumm with Legal Aid West Michigan. "More people with good stable jobs in good stable housing means healthier, more prosperous communities.”

Chuck Burpee, one of the volunteering attorneys, called pro bono expungement work the most rewarding thing he's done across 40 years practicing law. He recounted working with a grandmother who couldn't get a mortgage due to two 20-year-old shoplifting charges. When he told her those could be removed, she cried tears of joy.

"It’s good for everybody," Burpee said. "It broadens the pool of applicants for businesses, it improves their access to talent and it enables the individuals to participate in that process as well.”

Though there aren't more expungement fairs scheduled yet, Legal Aid of West Michigan does offer support services, and can connect those with expungable records to attorneys that can help.

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