Criminal Justice

Michigan thinks 'outside the box' when it comes to crime and work

It's been estimated that the typical person commits three federal crimes each day (mostly inadvertently). For the past few decades, the number of crimes on the books has exploded - and with it, the number of prisoners. Today, around one out of every three Americans has a criminal record.

Thankfully, things have started to turn around. States are tackling the problem of overcriminalization and are setting up programs for people to avoid prison. Civic and religious groups are working with people in prisons, to help start the rehabilitation process that will continue when they get out.

But there's a lot more to be done. And Michigan just took a big step toward making sure that ex-offenders get a second-chance opportunity, which will benefit them and the rest of society.

 

Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive order last week that prevents state agencies from asking about a person's criminal background on job applications. The state also will no longer consider someone's criminal record when it decides whether to grant a license for most of the many jobs that require one. This move beyond the ("Have you been convicted of a crime?") box doesn't mean the state or private citizens must hire someone with a record. But it does give ex-offenders a greater opportunity to find work, which is a key part to a new life apart from crime.

The licensing portion of Snyder's order will be particularly meaningful. Nearly 200 jobs in the state require a license to work - special permission from the government to work in the private sector. The vast majority of these licenses either banned former felons or included "good moral character" provisions restricting those with a record. More than 20 percent of occupations, representing a million jobs, had been off-limits to a large number of Michigan citizens.

In Michigan, many former offenders have struggled to become licensed because of these morality clauses, which apply to jobs like roofing, painting, installing gutters, floor sanding and more - even if the crime had no relation to the job. It doesn't make sense that a 17-year-old who gets caught shoplifting shouldn't be allowed to roof houses for the rest of his life or that a drug offense should keep someone from shampooing hair for a living.  

The research shows that preventing people with records from working doesn't protect the public. In fact, it does the opposite. Dr. Stephen Slivinski of Arizona State University found that when states make it more challenging for someone to become legally employed, people will turn elsewhere to find an income - often, returning to crime or working under the table. If someone is willing to go through the process of getting licensed in a trade, which usually involves training, tests and paperwork, then they have proven that they genuinely want to work. The government shouldn't be standing in the way.

One of the largest programs we have as a society is rehabilitating ex-offenders. The criminal justice system is a core service of government, and determining what is a crime and how to punish it are key questions states wrestle with. But if a person has paid for a crime, the next step should not be a lifetime ban on work, though some individuals will still need to be excluded from some jobs.

This move in Michigan is great for those with a criminal background (who get another chance), job providers (many of whom are desperate for workers) and the rest of society (which saves money on prisons and will see less crime). The next step is to put the governor's order into state law, and bills have been introduced to do just that.

Removing questions about criminal history from the initial job and licensing applications will make a big difference for ex-offenders looking for a new start. More states should follow Michigan's actions and rethink their licensing bans on those with criminal records. Doing so would do more than just help more former offenders find employment. It would make our society safer and more productive.

Jarrett Skorup is director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit group in Midland, Michigan aimed at reducing the size of government. Holly Wetzel is a communications associate at the center.   

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