GRAND RAPIDS, MI – An expungement fair held in Grand Rapids Saturday brought Eloise Ledesma one step closer to getting a decades-old misdemeanor wiped from her record.
Ledesma, 47, was picking up her ex-husband and his brother at a bar in 1996 when a fight broke out. She said she wasn’t involved in the altercation, never leaving the car, but still received an assault conviction.
“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.
The conviction has affected Ledesma’s ability to get certain jobs and babysit her grandchildren.
It only took about 15 minutes for a lawyer sitting under a tent in the parking lot of the Kent County Human Services Complex to help Ledesma fill out paperwork on the lingering charge, get the documents notarized and explain the next steps in expungement.
“Wow, it’s been a lifetime,” she said.
Ledesma was one of about 180 people who registered for expungement fairs hosted by the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild (BBCB) in Grand Rapids and Benton Harbor this weekend.
The events offer free legal support and resources for people looking to clear low-level offenses from their criminal records.
“We’ve had expungement laws on the books in Michigan for a long time. The problem was that so few people knew how to navigate it and so few people had the resources to do so easily,” said BBCG founder Denavvia Mojet.
According to researchers at the University of Michigan, only 6.5% of residents who qualify for expungement obtain it within five years of eligibility.
An estimated 1 million Michigan residents are newly eligible for expungement under the clean slate law, which went into effect on April 11.
Mojet said it has been frustrating to hear from hundreds of community members who did not qualify to have their records cleared under the previous law.
“Those barriers were overwhelming for us as an organization. When Clean Slate finally passed, when the governor signed it into law and when it recently took effect, we started immediately,” she said.
Under the new legislation, up to three felony convictions, unlimited misdemeanors and lesser traffic offenses can be expunged. Residents can also request a judge to expunge marijuana offenses if they occurred after recreational use was legalized in 2018.
This was the third fair hosted by BBCB, but the first to occur in the spring around April 20—a marijuana holiday.
“It’s an important testament to remembering the people who were criminalized for the plant that we today openly celebrate,” said Mojet.
Automatic expungement is also included in the new law for nonviolent misdemeanors after seven years and felonies after 10 years for residents with no additional convictions. Attorney General Dana Nessel said that won’t take effect until late 2022 at the earliest.
Most violent crimes, criminal sexual conduct and alcohol-related driving offenses are not eligible for expungement.
About 40 lawyers from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Cannabis Workers Rising and Legal Aid of Western Michigan volunteered their time for the expungement fairs—either doing prep work before the events or assisting people on the day.
“People don’t realize how common your criminal history is a barrier,” Mojet said.
It can affect people’s ability to get a job, find housing or volunteer in their communities.
The fairs also provided employment resources, and the Kent District Library brought a bookmobile for people to sign up for a virtual GED program.
The Benton Harbor event, scheduled for Sunday, April 25, is the first one BBCB is hosting outside of Grand Rapids. Mojet said people were driving in from across the region to attend previous events.
BBCB plans to hold additional expungement fairs this year in Detroit, Muskegon, Jackson and Lansing. Those dates have yet to be determined, but information will be made available at www.bbcannabis.com.
More on MLive: