When Ambi Williams pleaded guilty 20-some years ago to something she had not done in exchange for no jail time, she had no idea how that decision by a 17-year-old girl would affect her life.

“Basically, I was in a bad relationship, and I was accused of assault and battery and assault with a dangerous weapon. I didn’t do it, but it was a week before my high school graduation,” Williams recalls. “My lawyer told me to plead guilty. It was my first offense, so I’d get court costs and fines, but no jail time or probation.”

But what she did get – a criminal record.

“For 20 years, I’ve had to explain about something that I didn’t do. I realize 90 percent of people (in jail or convicted of a crime) say they didn’t do it, but I literally did not do it,” she said.

The conviction kept her from becoming a foster parent and doing other things she longed to do.

In April, her convictions were expunged, giving her a clean slate.

Now 38, she has three children, a great relationship with her parents and a rewarding job as chief operating officer of Mosaic CCDA (Christian Community Development Association.)

“I went before the wonderful Judge (Gary) Bruce. He was compassionate. He knew me from Mosaic, where previously I was the operations director,” Williams said.

The expungements have changed her life.

“Now I’m looking to do transitional foster care, from youth into adulthood. At 18 they age out of foster care. Maybe they haven’t learned to drive, or have never had a job. Or they’re homeless. The crime rate goes up when people are trying to survive,” she said.

“I want to start at age 16 preparing them to age out,” she said. “It will be in a group setting, and I’ll partner with people who will maybe pay for driver’s ed, or help them get a car, help them in different phases of their life, starting college, getting their own apartment, having and keeping a job.”

Wiping the slate clean

A March study by University of Michigan Law School researchers J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr determined that just 6.5 percent of people who are legally eligible for expungement obtain it within five years of eligibility. At the same time, they found, those who obtain expungement have extremely low subsequent crime rates, and experience a sharp upturn in their employment paths and wages.

Today, about 19 million Americans have felony convictions on record, and a presumably much larger number have misdemeanor convictions. Policy-makers have paid attention to the barriers faced by people with criminal records, and in 2018 alone two-thirds of U.S. States adopted related policies, including expungement laws, to help mitigate those barriers. Michigan’s expungement law is largely representative of such laws throughout the country, but it has existed longer than most.

Researchers found that when people who are eligible for expungement do not achieve it, it is far more likely that they didn’t apply than that their application was denied by a judge.

Once a conviction is expunged, the law allows an individual the legal right to respond “no” when a potential employer or landlord asks if the applicant has a criminal record. In most states, including Michigan, sealed, set aside or expunged convictions remain available for law enforcement purposes and for sentencing in the event of a subsequent crime.

It’s not automatic

Prosecutors are included in the expungement process, and Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic said, “We’re careful with them. We take it seriously.”

He said some cases deserve expungements, while others do not.

“If you are totally rehabilitated and are on a completely different direction than when the crime was committed, we want to know that. What have you done positive since committing this crime? In the cases that deserve it, expungement can vastly improve their life,” Sepic said.

Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford said his office sees less than six expungement cases a year on average. 

“In my 25 years as a prosecutor, I have never opposed a petition to set-aside or expunge (a conviction) whenever the defendant is legally eligible,” Bedford said. “In fact, I have assisted defendants from time to time in the process of getting their applications filed.”

Sepic said he’s not sure expungement is appropriate when it comes to some crimes, such as embezzlement.

“I think potential employers would want to know about it,” he said.

Sterling Schrock, presiding judge in Berrien County Trial Court’s criminal division, said that’s a legitimate concern, and he understands employers would have concerns.

“But if a person has met all the criteria and a period of time has passed, there’s been a time frame to demonstrate behavior changes,” Schrock said. He pointed out that expungement cannot be considered until five years have passed since the end of a person’s sentence.

“Embezzlers who have been ordered to pay back money won’t be done any time soon, so it would be a long time before they would even be eligible, if ever,” he said.

Elizabeth McCree opened her law office in Benton Harbor in 2015 and has handled about two dozen expungement cases, about half of those being in Berrien County. She said in all but one of the cases, expungement was granted.

“It gives people tons of opportunities with housing, jobs, getting their children out of foster care. There are so many ways it can help change the life of the person with the record, and others,” she said.

She pointed to Williams as “the perfect example of the kind of candidate who should have that.”

The application process can seem difficult. For those not working with an attorney, the self-help legal resource center at the Berrien County Courthouse can help, McCree said.

Letting more people know

McCree, along with other people, has tried to help raise awareness of expungement. Many of the people who never apply are not aware that it’s available.

“I think awareness is a problem,” Schrock said. “But it’s not a function of the court. But various organizations could step up.”

An expungement clinic hosted by Berrien County officials and church pastors in 2014 was attended by about 200 people.

At that time, Michigan law allowed for just one conviction to be expunged. In 2015, the law changed to allow expungement of up to one felony and two misdemeanors.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa