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Lawmakers allowing marijuana convictions, other crimes to be expunged more easily

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 5:48 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Michigan lawmakers have approved a new program to automatically expunge criminal records for marijuana offenses.

But the new law would apply to more than just those drug charges. It will remove barriers from many others hoping to live productive lives.

Since he became a criminal defense attorney 20 years ago, Matthew Norwood has been fighting against Michigan’s current expungement laws. He said they’re unfair and even testified to state lawmakers about his concerns.

Norwood is happy to see some change with the movement of these new package of bills.

“I had a young man who was turned away for volunteering at a school, in his son’s school, because he had a prior felony conviction. When he was a kid, he got caught with a gun in the car and he was just dumb,” Norwood said.

He hears similar stories all the time. Once a week, Norwood receives a phone call from someone wanting a clean slate, but he said the current law only allows the expungement of two misdemeanors and one felony.

“I had a lot of clients that would have one felony, and they would want to get an expungement, but they had like three or four misdemeanors on their record -- some of them for driving a suspended license, expired plates, little ticky tack misdemeanors,” he said. “And, I would have to tell them that you’re not eligible.”

This new package of bills sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pass into law would clean that issue up. Norwood said convictions would disappear automatically without the person having to do anything if they do not commit any crimes within a certain time period.

For misdemeanors, that time period is seven years and for felonies it’s 10 years.

Any marijuana charge would be expunged automatically right away with Whitmer’s signature enacting the bills.

“How many opportunities are people missing because a mistake from the very, very long past that now puts them on a different trajectory where they feel like that’s the only option they have is to go back in the system,” Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson said.

Knowing this expungement does not apply to violent crime convictions, Swanson is in favor of the legislation.

“I support the process to show that good behavior after a mistake, that the process can work,” he said. “They don’t have to keep paying that price.”

Other states like Oregon and California have instituted similar expungement policies, but in those states people with convictions must come forward to ask for that to happen.

Nearly 500,000 people were arrested for marijuana crimes in California since 2007, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. But California courts received just over 1,500 applications to reclassifying the crimes in the one year after the law went into effect.

More than 78,000 convictions could be set aside in Oregon, but courts received slightly more than 1,000 requests in the three years after the law went into effect.

If enacted, the law in Michigan would automatically wipe those convictions clean. The goal is to help as many people as possible.

“If you would qualify under what the law is now for possession and use, it will automatically clean up those marijuana charges for people,” Norwood said. “So, I don’t believe that they would have to do anything that the marijuana conviction would just disappear.”

Copyright 2020 WJRT. All rights reserved.

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