Breaking Down Barriers

The path to a stable career and a stable life hasn’t been an easy one for Arthur Benson. He admits he has made mistakes and has been to prison more than once. “Every time I got out, I couldn’t get a job and I’d fall right back into crime,” Benson said. Part of the challenge for Benson was an apprehension from employers to hire a convicted felon — part of his background that needed to be declared upfront on his job application. Today, he has greater hope for his future. He received training in the electrical trades at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility’s Vocational Village, and in early September, Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive directive that instructed all state departments and agencies to remove the felony question box on applications for employment. The Governor encouraged other Michigan employers to do the same. In addition, he announced the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) would remove the felony checkbox that precedes occupational and construction code licensing applications. “This means a lot,” Benson said. “It gives us a chance to be judged by how we do the job rather than the decisions we made.” In 2017, Gov. Snyder also signed a law that removes the prohibition on the Michigan Department of Corrections hiring formerly convicted felons. “The continuation of Michigan’s comeback depends on all populations and communities being part of our success,” Gov. Snyder said. “We have to keep working to reduce barriers to employment, and by modernizing our system to move outside the box, we can offer second chances to many residents who are ready to work and already trained for the exact jobs that employers are desperate to fill. Especially with our current shortage of skilled trades professionals, it’s imperative we work to incorporate as many people as possible into our labor force.” Director Heidi Washington said removing the checkbox is a step in the right direction as the state continues its work to make communities safer and set returning citizens on a path to success. “When our returning citizens have the education and skills they need to land stable careers, they are less likely to reoffend,” Director Washington said. “By removing barriers to employment and opening up more opportunities, we are giving returning citizens a valuable second chance and building a foundation of long-term public safety for our state.” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said employers have already seen success in hiring returning citizens. “Michigan’s recidivism rate has never been lower, but there is so much more that we can do,” Calley said. “The Department of Corrections has led the start of this cultural change in our state. We have great employers in Michigan who already recognize the advantage of giving people a second chance in the workforce and have seen great results because of it.” LARA and the Michigan Department of Corrections also signed a memorandum of understanding that allows a prisoner who completes a Vocational Village program to automatically meet the good moral character licensing requirement. This will give prisoners certainty that if they receive training in a particular trade, they will be eligible to be licensed for it. The removal of the felony question from the licensing process is also expected to allow additional trades to be taught at the Vocational Village. Shawn Tylutki, an institutional parole agent at Parnall Correctional Facility said there are times returning citizens haven’t been offered opportunities because of the stigma of incarceration, and this helps break down that barrier. “Some returning citizens have impressive credentials, but due to the felony checkbox, they were not even given a chance to interview,” Tylutki said. “Eliminating the box will give them a second chance.” The decision to remove the felony question from State of Michigan job and occupational and construction code licensing applications received broad support from advocacy and interest groups, including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the ACLU of Michigan. LARA will also work with municipalities in Michigan on “Outside the Box” policies, as a number of Michigan communities have their own licensing requirements in addition to the state-level licensing standards. The executive directive and order to ban the box from licensing applications is an exciting development for both returning citizens and Michigan employers, said Ryan Powell, a workforce development specialist for the MDOC. “Banning the box will give these individuals a fair shot to compete for vacant positions, where in the past they were screened out from the very beginning because of their felony record,” Powell said. Archie Porter, who is in the building trades program at Parnall Correctional Facility’s Vocational Village, said returning citizens who have paid their debt to society and have employable skills, shouldn’t be considered unacceptable applicants simply because of a past mistake. “Some men when released from prison have a drive and determination that is unmatched by anyone who hasn’t been incarcerated,” Porter said. “Myself and others understand the importance of these opportunities.” Benson said he hopes other employers respond to the Governor’s encouragement to remove the checkbox and give returning citizens an opportunity to show their worth. “A lot of us just need that second chance,” he said.