On Sept. 7, Michigan joined 32 other states in “banning the box” for employment with the State of Michigan, as Governor Snyder signed a directive that would take questions about felony convictions off employment applications for state agencies.
Beginning in October, state agencies will no longer have the question “Were you ever convicted of a felony?” on their employment applications, the question being replaced with a box in which the applicant will self-attest to having good character. Questions about felony convictions can be asked at any point further in the hiring process, such as during employment interviews or after background checks, and convictions can still be considered in decisions on whether to hire an applicant. The good news for those with a criminal record is that now their applications can be considered for follow-up calls and interviews without the taint of a “yes” answer to the conviction question.
The governor, in announcing the directive, also encouraged private sector employers to remove the felony question from their employment applications. However, he believes this decision should be voluntary rather than required; in 2015, he signed into law a bill that prohibits municipal and county governments from passing ”ban the box” ordinances and other workplace policies that cover private employers—a bill the Michigan League for Public Policy opposed. The League believes local elected leaders should be able to pass workplace ordinances that represent the wishes of their constituents, including banning the box.
Of perhaps even more consequence, Michigan will now enable thousands of returning citizens to pursue occupational licenses from which they were previously barred. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) will take the question off occupational license applications that do not have prohibitions under state or federal law, such as those for cosmetology, plumbing and construction. The Snyder administration says it will also work with the Legislature to re-examine licensing requirements in certain health care fields to determine which areas can have the question removed while ensuring public safety.
Removing the prohibition from the state licenses will also enable Michigan to provide training in more occupational fields in the prisons themselves, so that more individuals who have completed their time will be work-ready upon release.
These very big steps that the state has taken will not only benefit returning citizens themselves, but will save state money and reduce crime because having a skilled job that provides economic security and wage mobility significantly reduces the likelihood of recidivism. The Snyder administration should be applauded for this directive, and the next governor must maintain and build on these changes.
However, Michigan ought to go further. There are several other ways the governor and the Legislature can make it easier for returning citizens to reintegrate into society and thrive, including:
- Incentivize or require county and municipal governments to remove felony questions from their job applications, as some states do. The governor’s policy change only applies to state government employment.
- Remove the statutory prohibition on county and municipal governments enacting “ban the box” laws covering private employment.
- Remove the restriction against persons with more than one drug felony receiving food or cash assistance if otherwise eligible, since such assistance can aid the transition to economic independence and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
- Explore ways to expunge certain types of felonies from an individual’s public record after a period of time.