Costly Wayne County program clears criminal records at about 20 times the cost, records show

(WXYZ) DETROIT - For some employees, working in Wayne County can often feel like the haves and the have nots.  

While the posh Guardian Building is home to County Executive Robert Ficano and his appointees, those who come to work here at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice have more humble office space.

"It's falling down at the seams," says attorney Susan Reed, who spends countless hours in the court building.

"The elevators go out, the lights go out, the bathrooms flood," she said.

"It's an impossible situation."

For lawyers like Reed, leaky ceilings, shredded carpet and even rodents are often the norm.  So as court facilities fall into disrepair, many are wondering why Ficano is spending so much county money on a court program that's had meager results.

He founded the Second Change Through Expungement program, known as STEP, back in 2007.  The program was designed to clear criminal records of county residents with only one non-violent offense. Officials said individuals with a clean record are more likely to get a job and pay taxes, and are less likely to fall back in trouble with the law. 

Attorneys and judges say it's an easy process you can do yourself.  Applications are available at the clerk's office, along with step-by-step instructions on how to get it done. The cost is around $100, according to the clerk, lawyers and judges. 

"You get your fingerprints, you get a court date and you come to court," Reed said.

One of the program's architects said it was expected clear 500 records a year. But in more than four years, it's produced barely 400 expungements and led to plenty of criticism. 

"I think we're all disappointed in the number of people whose records are actually expunged," said County Commissioner Bernard Parker.

The program's cost has also come under scrutiny.  Rick Jones has run the STEP program since Ficano appointed him in 2007, but says he's never looked at how much each expungement costs the county.  He's says he's convinced, though, that the county is running the program as cheaply as possible. 

But records obtained by 7 Action News raise serious doubts.  Budget estimates by one county official show that the 417 expungements performed by the county have come at a cost of about $2,200 each, a far cry from the normal cost of $100. 

"It shouldn't be that kind of difference," Parker said.

That inefficiency led the county's former Chief Operation Officer  Bella Marshall to recommend the program be eliminated years back.  It wasn't.

Rick Jones says STEP is becoming more efficient than it used to be.  One reason for a higher cost, he says, is that the criminal population needs more help than the average taxpayer.  And he says whatever the cost, it's cheaper to expunge a record than house a prisoner.

"Do we want to spend our money effectively?" Jones asked.

"I think the Wayne County STEP Program is money well spent."

Parker and others aren't so sure.  They're convinced the work can be done for less, with better results, so more money can go towards crumbling county buildings that need it.

"I happen to believe that government (isn't always) the best one to operate a service like this, we might need to contract it...and not always keep it in house and think that we can do a better job," Parker said.

STEP isn't the only program of its kind. An Ohio university started a smaller program with only a $10,000 budget.  They say it costs them only about $300 to expunge a criminal record.  Wayne County officials say Ohio's expungement laws are less rigorous than Michigan's. 

If you have a tip for the 7 Action News Investigative Team, contact us at tips@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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