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Washtenaw County gets permanent Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit

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Sophia Kalakailo
/
Michigan Radio
Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit and the Board of Commissioners held a press conference announcing the permanent creation of the county's Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit on November 4, 2021.

Washtenaw County’s Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit is now a permanent part of the county’s prosecutor’s office after a unanimous vote by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday.

Conviction integrity units investigate wrongful conviction claims. There are similar units at the state level and in Wayne County. (Oakland County plans to create a unit.) Washtenaw’s CIEU does the same, but also assists newly eligible Washtenaw County residents in expunging their old criminal records under a new state law.

To do this, the board finalized approval for the permanent addition of an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney position to serve as the Director of the Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit (CIEU).

The position, filled by Frances Walters, was originally temporary. But Eli Savit, Washtenaw County’s Prosecuting Attorney, requested that the board of commissioners make the position permanent in July.

“Each delay in investigating someone's case for the truth of whether they are innocent or not, is an extra day that that person is continuously incarcerated and living under the shadow of having a conviction on their record. And the same is actually true for someone who has an old criminal record that is now eligible for expungement. It often holds them back from getting jobs, getting education and accessing housing, even,” Savit said.

The new permanent position is projected to cost $139,531, according to the resolution.

The Michigan state Legislature allowed for more types of crimes, including marijuana-related misdemeanors and many non-violent felonies, to be expunged from a record in April. But Walters said figuring out the process and eligibility can be complicated, which is where the CIEU steps in.

Walters used to be Counsel at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project where she litigated innocence cases. She said that conviction integrity units in prosecutor’s offices can move much faster than outside organizations to exonerate someone because they have quicker access to pertinent information, sometimes cutting the length of the process from years to months.

“Conviction Integrity Units can get things done, they have access to the information in sometimes months,” Walters said at a press conference on Thursday. “That is a huge difference. Please do not rely on just having great public defenders or innocence organizations, we need to change the system from the inside out.”

Savit said the CIEU has assisted over 500 eligible residents in expunging their criminal records so far and has received 15 wrongful conviction claims.

According to Savit’s memo, the CIEU assists Washtenaw County residents in these areas by:

  • Clearing up errors on the criminal background check, which may falsely identify a person as being ineligible for expungement because they share a name or other identifying information with a person who may have committed a disqualifying offense elsewhere (this happens far more frequently than it should);
  • Obtaining certified copies of court records at no cost to applicants
  • Assisting applicants in filling out their expungement applications
  • Connecting applicants to pro bono lawyers who can represent them at an expungement hearing in court

Larry Darnell Smith Jr. is an exoneree who served over 26 years for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated as a result of Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit. He is also a member of the National Organization of Exonerees.

“These conviction integrity units, they are necessary across the country because the core system got a disconnect already,” Smith said. “And what's the disconnect? Poor choices have been made and people don't want to step up to them.”

Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris said those wrongfully convicted are often Black men.

“That means that when government wrongfully convicted and incarcerated them, they incarcerated an entire family,” Burton-Harris said. “They broke that family, Black families. And we are seeing the aftermath of Black families being intentionally broken play out.”

The CIEU also holds a number of “expungement events” with community partners where residents can begin the process of expunging their records. Savit said there will be an all-day event for both expungement and warrant resolution day on November 16 in Ypsilanti.

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