GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michelle Eason still gets emotional whenever she talks about the day her felony record was expunged two years ago.
“The judge, I felt like I mattered to him. I knew he had read my story,” Eason said with tears in her eyes. “He signed off on it. And, because of that I’m here.”
Back in 1989, Eason was charged with a felonious assault due to a domestic violence incident, in which she was the victim, she said. Since then, she’s been turning her life around, earning a degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University.
However, on the day of the expungement in 2018, Eason cried tears of joy at the Kent County Courthouse because the felony that had been 'hovering' over her for decades was finally gone, she said.
Now that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Clean Slate bill on October 12, many others will have the same reaction, she said.
“That is groundbreaking for individuals especially in the African American community,” Eason said. “It’s going to open up a lot of doors. It’s going to allow for a lot of opportunities as far as employment and housing. All those barriers will be removed.”
Eason, who’s a single mother of two daughters, ran into many barriers like employment, she said. Even though she had a degree, her felony record followed her and prevented her from getting certain jobs.
“Often it’s about jobs, housing, even field trips with kids. Our public schools system justifiably wants to protect kids from going on field trips with felons,” said Tracey Brame, an associate dean at Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School. “But, you know, that also prohibits a good number of people from being able to participate in their kids lives which is what we want people to be able to do.”
Brame was a part of the team at Cooley's Access to Justice Clinic that helped Eason get her record expunged.
Brame runs the clinic and said she and her team have been following the bill since it was first approved by the House earlier this year. Then it stalled due to COVID. However it was later approved by the Senate in September.
Now that it’s been signed, it's going to help around 100,000 people in the state become eligible for an expungement, Brame said. Some felony records will be cleared automatically, she added.
“Already our phones are ringing,” Brame said. “People are asking a lot of questions because the bill significantly expanded the world of people who are now eligible to petition to have their records cleared, which is just amazing.”
Brame added that the bill doesn’t go into effect until April. However, one of its biggest benefits is it'll remove the stigma that’s associated with being labeled a felon.
“It’s like a scarlet letter that you carry,” said Eason referencing the 1850 novel of the same name, in which the protagonist wears a symbol of shame on her clothes. “You do have to wear that stigma because everybody wants an explanation. They don’t understand. All they see is the paperwork. All they see is the actual charge that you’ve been charged with.”
However, there’s a story behind every charge, she said. Eason's grateful for the clinic and the judge that listened to her story. Eason now has a job she loves, working at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County, advocating for children who have been sexually abused.
Eason's also working on getting her master's degree, and said life since the expungement has been ‘amazing.’
“I think about everything that I been through and my story isn’t everybody’s story but I’m blessed,” Eason said. “I know that I’m blessed and I’m so grateful that I did get a second chance.”