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Jobs are the ultimate criminal justice reform

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It’s tough to administer a good criminal justice system. Locking people up is one of the state’s most formidable powers: It involves political and controversial trade-offs, it’s expensive when done well, and it’s even more expensive when done poorly.

But it is in all of our interests — including fiscal responsibility, public safety and constitutional governance — to fix and improve our laws, police practices, court systems and jail, prison and re-entry programs.

{mosads}There is a lot at stake. Michigan has over 3,000 crimes on its books — the most in the region — and our lawmakers continually add to them. Hundreds of police agencies and scores of courts process tens of thousands of criminal defendants every year. A massive network of prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, court administrators, probation and parole officers, and bail bondsmen supports the system.


Prisons are extremely costly, paying staffing and health care expenses for the 40,000 prisoners they house for an average of four-plus years each. When all its activities are tallied, the criminal justice system costs billions to run every year. The people who enter it are frequently indigent, addicted, or mentally ill, and being in it has far-reaching effects on their futures and on the lives of their children, families and communities.  

There’s a lot to reform within the system. But there’s one ultimate criminal justice reform that can prevent people from entering the system in the first place and, should they enter it, help put them on the path to recovery once they leave it: jobs.

People need to work. We all do better with the dignity and stability of earning an income, and this is especially true in the criminal justice system. This simple but powerful fact is in the academic research, and it’s in the anecdotal feedback. It’s also in our collective common sense: People who have jobs are less likely to commit crimes, and convicts who have jobs are less likely to reoffend. Work is an immunization, and work is a cure.

Three policy changes can make it easier for people to get and keep jobs. First, Michigan needs to raise the age of adult criminal liability to 18. Currently we are one of only five states (along with Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin) where 17-year-olds are all automatically tried as and incarcerated with adults. But giving them access to the juvenile justice system instead has many benefits for them and for us. It means they have a better shot at rehabilitation and a greater chance that they won’t carry a permanent criminal record that will limit their academic, employment and housing options. Juvenile courts focus on family involvement and keeping kids in school, providing them with the individualized treatment, services and accountability they need to become law-abiding and productive adults.

Second, we should pass an expungement law that allows one-time, low-level criminal offenses to automatically drop off someone’s record after 10 years. Maryland just passed a similar measure, and Alaska, Arkansas and Tennessee are considering the proposal as well. Under current Michigan law, individuals can petition to have their records sealed or cleared, but many former offenders can’t afford or simply can’t manage to hire an attorney and attempt to navigate that process. A criminal record is a major barrier to work, housing and education, even if the crime was minor, and even if it happened years ago. It is unjust to saddle such an offender with a lifelong punishment. It’s also bad for our workforce when thousands of people are automatically excluded from jobs due to a decade-old incident that may be entirely unrelated to their desired profession.

Finally, Michigan should fix its broken occupational licensing scheme, which is rife with absurdities. We require more training hours from barbers than the flight time commercial airline pilots need for their training. We require people to get a license to pour concrete but not asphalt, to paint walls but not to hang drywall, and to install tile but not carpet. More than 20 percent of Michiganders have a job that requires a license, increasing consumer costs without providing public safety benefits. Michigan has licensing requirements for 42 moderate-income occupations.

That’s not as bad as Louisiana, which imposes requirements on 71 such occupations, but we should aim to be more like Wyoming, where the comparable number is only 24. Importantly, many Michigan licenses contain “good moral character” clauses that bar those with a criminal record from entering the field. With a dearth of skilled labor in this state, we can hardly afford to exclude hundreds of thousands of people from jobs they need while locking them out of their best chance at rehabilitation.

Administering criminal justice is incredibly complex, and we will never reform it to perfection. That’s why the ultimate solution is to prevent people from getting tangled up in it in the first place. Happily, that powerful and effective reform is easy to implement: Break down the barriers between people and the work they need to lead healthy, productive lives.

Kahryn Riley is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a free-market research institute.

Tags Criminal justice Criminal law Kahryn Riley

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