News Story

Detroiters Benefit From Snyder Licensure, Criminal Records Orders

Initial applications for state jobs and licenses won’t ask about criminal records

The unemployment rate in the city of Detroit in April 2017 was 7.1 percent, down dramatically from 24.9 percent in April 2010.

The improvement does not mean that employment levels among city residents are high, however, because many people are not considered to be in the workforce (either employed or actively looking for work). In fact, only 44.5 percent of Detroit residents who are 18 years and older were considered to be in the workforce and employed during April 2017.

For comparison, roughly 50.2 percent of the comparable population in Cleveland was employed. In Indianapolis and Chicago, the number was 65.8 percent and 60.4 percent, respectively. Detroit’s low rate of workforce participation is an outlier among big cities in the Great Lakes region.

The explanations for why so few individuals in Detroit’s working age population are in the workforce are wide-ranging. But one factor is that residents with felony records are unable to enter many licensed occupations, even if their crime was unrelated to the field they’re looking to work in.

On Sept. 7, Gov. Rick Snyder directed the state agency in charge of administering occupational licenses to remove a check box, commonly found on license applications, which asks, “Were you convicted of a felony?” At the same time, he directed state departments to remove the question from government job applications.

The action does not remove all the hurdles faced by people with a felony record. It means, however, they will not be automatically barred at the start of the licensure process. Officials will still consider an individual’s criminal record when processing licensing applications, which will require applicants to divulge that they have gone through rehabilitation.

Legislation introduced in August by Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, would cement the changes ordered by Snyder into law. House Bill 6280 would prohibit state licensing boards from barring an individual from licensure solely on the basis of having committed a felony in the past, unless the law governing a particular license specifies that the felony in question is a disqualifying offense.

According to the Michigan ACLU, around 100,000 Detroit residents may have a felony record that could restrict them from getting a job or housing. In 2016, 7,151, or 15 percent of the 47,347 state residents charged with a felony were from Detroit, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. Of the 7,151 Detroit residents charged with a felony, only 1,461 or 20 percent, went to prison.

Most Detroit residents charged with a felony served a jail sentence of a year or less, or were given probation or another punishment. This means that roughly 5,700 of those charged with a felony would likely return to Detroit within a year.

Cindy Pasky, the founder and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, an information technology and business services company based in Detroit, believes occupational licensure reform could bring more individuals back into the workforce.

“Detroiters, particularly those with criminal backgrounds, want to work, but too often face barriers to employment,” Pasky said in a statement. “Reforming occupational licensing has the potential to bring a lot of talented, hard-working individuals back into the workforce.”

The state requires individuals who work in over 200 occupations to obtain an official license. Many of those licenses have been off-limits to individuals with a past criminal conviction, even if the crime was unrelated to the field they’re trying to work in, since they are deemed to lack “good moral character.” Compounding the challenge, Detroit imposes its own licensure mandate on 30 occupations.

Detroit Councilmember Janeé Ayers said that she supports the general direction of Lucido’s bill, and of a bipartisan licensure reform package that was introduced in June but is withholding final judgment until she can read all the legislation.

“We’ve got to create the pathway for [the formerly incarcerated] to have their own sustainable income and to give back to their community because, when do you stop paying for the crime that you’ve already given years of your life for?” Ayers said.

Ayers has personal experience with the restrictions that someone with a criminal record can face, as her own father couldn’t get a barber’s license after getting out of prison.

In addition to restricting state licensing boards from automatically assuming that a past criminal conviction means an individual does not have good moral character, the bills pending in the Legislature would ensure that if an individual is denied a license due to a past criminal conviction, officials must provide an explanation. Once denied a license, an individual would be able to rebut the claims of the licensing board.

“I want licensing authorities to be specific and I want them to articulate with specificity why someone was denied a license,” Lucido said. “Black and white, never arbitrary and capricious.”