Sarissa Montague shares legal expertise with media as Michigan’s new Clean Slate Act takes effect

Since Michigan’s new Clean Slate Act took effect earlier this month, Sarissa Montague, criminal defense attorney at Levine & Levine Attorneys At Law, has shared her legal expertise on this new law with media and how it will eliminate barriers caused by old convictions.

Montague explained how the legislation works to FOX 17, Grand Rapids Business Journal, WLNS TV6, WOOD TV8, and WWMT Channel 3. Aspects of the legislation, which launched on April 11, expands the number and types of felonies that can be wiped from records, and limited the period between when someone is convicted and when the expungement process can begin. Additionally, court and law enforcement authorities are allowed two years to secure funding and coordinate plans to allow for automatic set aside of some offenses. That means automatic set asides will not be implemented until April 2023.

She said expungements will help people apply for jobs, loans and housing worry free.

“It’s really, really exciting for people who have been shamed for the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years because of things that they did when they were younger. And I’m just really happy for people who have done everything right since making mistakes,” Montague told FOX 17. “It is shameful for many people to have to check the box that says ‘yes, I’ve been convicted of something’ when their current life does not represent the person that they were when they made those bad choices.”

Montague, who was featured twice by WOOD TV8 about the new law, said she looks forward to standing next to her clients in court when their records become expunged.

“This is a really big deal and really an amazing thing for people who have gotten in trouble in the past, but are no longer making bad choices that bring them into the criminal justice system,” Montague told Wood TV8 during her first interview. “And they’ve made changes and haven’t made mistakes in a number of years, and so this gives them the opportunity to move forward with their lives.”

During her latest interview with WOOD TV8 on April 23, Montague explained that the law makes it much easier for people convicted of having marijuana — which is now legal in Michigan — to get those convictions set aside. She told media the legislation will help people to get jobs, lower their insurance rates and back to a normal life.

“Up to this point, essentially, any person who had more than one felony conviction on his or her record could never seek to have any of their convictions expunged. If you had more than two misdemeanors on your record, you could never seek to have any of your convictions set aside,” Montague said during her April 23 interview with WOOD TV8, explaining that those convictions often prevent people from securing housing and getting jobs. “If a company is looking to hire and someone has been convicted of a crime and somebody hasn’t, I think very often they went with the person who hadn’t (been convicted of a crime) and that was a problem.”

Montague said one thing that made the prior expungement criteria unfair is prosecutorial discretion. She said two people from two different counties could commit the same crime and walk away with a different number of charges based on the way the prosecutor in their county decided to charge them.

In an interview with WLNS, Montague shared:

“How it works is people who have previously been ineligible to seek expungements are now able to file applications with the court they were sentenced by and go back to the judges who sentenced them and ask the judge to set aside the conviction or convictions that were not previously eligible to get set aside,” Montague said during her interview with WLNS. “I think it’s really difficult for people who have criminal convictions on their records. Often times, the criminal conviction is a barrier to getting jobs. It’s a barrier to housing. It’s a barrier to business loans, maybe college loans. And so, having the convictions set aside really impacts a lot, particularly for people’s families. Imagine being a parent and raising your children the best you can and be ineligible for a number of jobs because of the criminal convictions on your record, or ineligibility for certain housing because of that.”

Montague went on to tell the Grand Rapids Business Journal: “Having worked as a criminal defense attorney for more than a decade, I have encountered all sorts of people who have gotten themselves entangled in the criminal justice system. It is not uncommon for people, at certain times in their lives, particularly when they are young or going through a difficult time, to make a series of bad choices.

“For some people, this becomes a pattern throughout their lives; for others, it is just a blip. I have seen countless people who made bad choices but, some time thereafter, turned themselves around and never got into legal trouble again. Up until this point, until the passage of the Clean Slate Act, these people were forever stigmatized by their criminal convictions because there was no mechanism by which these convictions could be removed from their record.

“The Clean Slate Act provides an opportunity for people who have made the effort to better their lives to no longer be stigmatized by the decisions they made, years, if not decades, before.”

After the Clean Slate law is fully implemented in April 2023, it will automatically wipe some misdemeanors from records after seven years and some non-assaultive felonies after a decade.

“For people who made mistakes at one point, but then have made the changes that we, as a community and as a society, asked them to make, this provides them the opportunity to go forward,” Montague told WWMT.

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