Convicted felons must be given an honest chance to work

Those convicted of felonies often face difficulties finding work after being released from prison.

The unfortunate result is that many return to a life of crime. A package of three bills in the Michigan Legislature has been crafted to improve the employment opportunities available to state prison parolees.

The current figures aren’t good. According to the Pew Center on the States, based in Washington, D.C., one in three Michigan parolees commits a crime that sends them back to prison. Also, of those who are out of prison, about 75 percent are unemployed.

House Bills 5216-5218 attack these problems on two fronts.

Bill 5216, whose primary sponsor is Rep. Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, and Bill 5218, sponsored by Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, focus on improving a prisoner’s behavior while behind bars and developing the skills needed to adjust to freedom.

“We know that a lot of people while incarcerated obtain a variety of (work) skills, from carpentry and welding to food service,” says Santana.

But they often find it hard to use those skills because employers are afraid to hire them.

Santana’s proposal would allow inmates who show an inclination for working and staying out of trouble to earn a certificate of employability, which would be given to them when they are released and could be shown to prospective employers.

“What good is it to put people in prison, have them pick up skills at taxpayer’s expense but then they can’t use them when they get out,” Santana said.

Kesto added “we’re working in Michigan to get everyone back to work. We’re seeing Michigan coming back. With these bills, we’re removing barriers to felons and giving them a chance to be successful and contributing members of society.”

A third measure, Bill 5217 sponsored by Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, helps employers get past the issue of liability for hiring an ex-convict.

Currently, if a parolee commits another crime while on the job, that individual’s boss could be sued.

That risk often puts a red flag on the resumes of parolees and is a reason for employers not to hire the applicants.

Walsh’s bill would limit the responsibility of the employer and hopefully reduce the disincentive to hire a released prisoners.

“The goal,” explains Walsh, “is to create a prison system that administers punishment but also recognizes that people will be released and so we try to provide them with skills they may need.”

The bills are in the House Commerce Committee.

A hearing may be conducted on them next week.

At $2 billion, Michigan’s Department of Correction’s budget is one of the highest in the nation.

Dropping the recidivism rate can only have positive effects on the state’s bottom line. There are many other areas where funds could be used if the budget were trimmed – schools and roads are just two.

The legislation makes sense and should become law.