Unemployment in the United States is currently so low that we’re at a point that some economists call “full employment.” That means that virtually everyone who wants a job can find one.

It sounds like it should be a time for celebrating, but for millions of Michiganders with some form of a criminal record, it can feel like they weren’t invited to the party. Even during a time when many employers say that they can’t find employees, Michigan residents who have misdemeanors or felonies in their past often struggle to find jobs with wages high enough to allow them to provide for their families.

For these would-be workers, it’s not necessarily a lack of skills that is the problem. Vocational training programs in state prisons, as well as previous work experience and college and job training programs after release, often provide these people with the skills and abilities they need to be valuable to employers.

The problem is a that their criminal record is used as a justification to deny them a piece of paper — the occupational licenses issued by state boards that allow people to pursue work in fields as diverse as health care and construction work.

“Unfortunately, when they get out (of prison), they are unable to get licensed,” Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Township) told the House Regulatory Reform Committee on May 21, 2019, as he spoke in favor of legislation that would break down barriers between justice-involved people and promising careers. “This is about making sure that folks who are re-entering society have got an opportunity to get back to work and fill some of the job vacancies that we have in this state.”

Opening job opportunities to people with a criminal record or who were formerly incarcerated makes good sense for everyone. These good jobs bring livable wages that allow people to live independently and sustain their families. It’s also good for public safety. When someone who is released from prison is able to find a job soon after release, their likelihood of being sent back to prison can drop by as much as 20 percentage points, according to a 2015 study. Last year, former Gov. Rick Snyder named the ability to find work as “the best deterrent in keeping former offenders from returning to prison.”

House Bills 4488-93 would help justice-involved people find jobs by overhauling the “good moral character” consideration in state occupational licenses. It would end the practice of excluding people with a criminal record from qualifying for a license in most cases, while still allowing the boards the flexibility to consider whether granting a license would endanger the public when making the decision to grant a license.

The bills are virtually identical to a set introduced during the past legislative session. That time, the bills made it through the House and were approved by a Senate committee, but the Legislature’s lame duck session ended in December 2018 before they could be taken up for a vote.

This year — like last year — the Mackinac Center is leading the effort on the bills, which have bipartisan sponsorship. Safe & Just Michigan supports the legislation, along with organizations such as ACLU of Michigan, Americans for Prosperity-Michigan and the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Under current law, licensing boards are not allowed to use a judgement of guilt in a criminal case against an applicant as the sole reason for denying that person a license. In practice, however, the presence of a criminal record often leads boards to find a reason to deny a license. House Bill 4488 changes this by telling licensing boards that a criminal record is not grounds for denying a license unless all of the following conditions are met:

  • The record includes a felony conviction.
  • The occupational or professional licensing statute states that the type of felony involved is a disqualifying offense (ie, a child abuse conviction would disqualify one from operating a child care facility).
  • The licensing board or agency concludes the offense has a direct, specific negative effect on the applicant’s ability to perform the duties authorized by the occupational or professional license.
  • The licensing board or agency determines that the state’s interest in protecting public safety is superior to the individual’s right to pursue the occupation or profession only if it can be based on all of the following:
    • The offense is substantially related to the state’s interest in protecting public safety.
    • The applicant, based on the nature of the offense and on any additional information provided by the licensee regarding his or current circumstances, is more likely to commit a subsequent offense if granted the license.
    • A subsequent offense committed with the aid of the license will cause greater harm to the public than it would if the individual did not have it.

Beyond that, HB 4488 directs boards to weigh other factors beyond the presence of a criminal history, such as how long ago the offense occurred, evidence of rehabilitation, testimonials, employment history and employment aspirations.

The remaining bills in the package, House Bills 4489-93, update the definition of “good moral character” in various occupational codes and acts and require annual reports to the Legislature outlining how many licensure denials were made under the “good moral character” clause.

Anna Kohn, the chief impact officer of RecoveryPark in Detroit and a member of Safe & Just Michigan’s board of directors, was also at the committee meeting to read testimony on behalf of RecoveryPark’s founder and CEO, Gary Wozniak.

Wozniak worked as a stockbroker before receiving a three-year drug sentence. After his release, he was frustrated to learn he couldn’t even get a job at a car rental company, which led him to go into business for himself. Recognizing that others leaving prison also needed help re-establishing their lives, he founded RecoveryPark to provide assistance with jobs and vocational training, housing and other needs.

“As a returning citizen, an entrepreneur, a recovering addict and the founder of a multimillion for-impact company, my team and I fully endorse the package of bills,” Wozniak wrote. “Returning citizens have a wide range of skills and abilities, and they should not be overlooked.”


Photo: Anna Kohn, chief impact officer of RecoveryPark in Detroit and a Safe & Just Michigan board member, delivers testimony in favor of modifying the “good moral character” component of state occupational licensing requirements. She read testimony written by RecoveryPark founder and CEO Gary Wozniak at a meeting of the House Regulatory Reform Committee on May 21, 2019.