WMU-Cooley Law School's Access to Justice Clinic wins 50th expungement

WMU-Cooley Law School’s Access to Justice Clinic has helped Michigan residents clear their criminal records for the past three years. This summer, the law school celebrates its 50th expungement victory with a special community reception.

“Having convictions on your record can pose significant barriers to various aspects of your life,” said Molly Mahoney, a WMU-Cooley Law School student who works at the clinic. “A criminal record can stand in the way of getting a job, obtaining housing, getting certain licenses, furthering education and attaining financial stability.”

This was the case for the clinic’s client, Michelle Briggs, who began a one-year probation sentence for a felonious assault charge in 1989. Ten months into the probation, the charge against then 21-year-old Briggs was dismissed and she was free to live her life without any legal system controls – or so she thought.

Despite having worked for 14 years at Steelcase, serving as team lead inspector and the company’s United Way representative, Briggs grappled with roadblocks due to her single felony citation. She lost out on housing and certain employment opportunities after being laid off indefinitely at Steelcase.

“That charge has been a ball and chain around my ankles for 29 years,” said Briggs, now 50. “I still had felonious assault on my record.”

As a single mother, Briggs put herself through college, receiving two associate’s degrees, one in juvenile services and the other in corrections. She lost her mother in May 2011, on the eve of graduating from Ferris State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

“It’s been really hard,” Briggs said. “Even after graduating college and having a degree and life experience, I wasn’t able to... provide for my family and be self-sufficient the way I desired.”

With the help of the Women’s Resource Center in Grand Rapids, which helped with employment and economic support, and WMU-Cooley’s Access to Justice (ATJ) Clinic, Briggs’ quest for freedom began.

The ATJ Clinic provides representation to those seeking to expunge their criminal convictions or remove their names from Michigan’s Health and Human Services' central registry. The clinic also educates the general public about issues facing ex-offenders, through volunteering at community  events and giving presentations on expungement and central registry removal. “Removing these barriers is the reason that  the Michigan legislature enacted the statute, and... the reason the [ATJ] Clinic works with clients like Michelle Briggs,” Mahoney said.

Briggs was unsure if she was able to afford the court-related costs and fees that would be required of her in the expungement process. She often had to choose between putting money toward her expungement and such necessities as paying the electric bill and putting food on the table for her and her children. Despite working two jobs, as a support staff coordinator at the YWCA and a residential adviser at Alternative Directions, Briggs filed for bankruptcy. But her support team never gave up hope.

“I can’t thank them enough,” Briggs said of the aspiring attorneys at the clinic. “They really worked hard and I appreciate them for persevering along with me, giving me respect and fighting for me. Through every step in the process, they were honest and kept me involved. They believed in me and made me feel like I mattered. That made me want to fight to get my life back.”

In April 2018, Briggs nervously stood before a Kent County judge during her expungement hearing. The judge shared details of what he had learned about Briggs at the time of her conviction and who she is now 29 years later. The judge’s compliments about what Briggs has accomplished in nearly three decades brought her to tears.

“I felt like he actually cared,” Briggs said. “He told me that he was proud of me and wanted me to continue on doing what I’m doing in life.”

The ATJ Clinic will commemorate its 50th expungement victory with a special community reception, open to the public, on July 19 from 4-7 p.m.,  in the courtyard at WMU-Cooley Grand Rapids.

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