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Opinion: Michigan sets good example of fair hiring

Kahryn Riley

Gov. Rick Snyder set a good example for employers in Michigan and nationwide when it comes to hiring people with a criminal history. He issued an executive order recently specifying that former offenders either seeking employment with the state of Michigan or applying for a state-issued occupational license do not need to check the box on their initial application indicating they have criminal history.

Instead, they may now wait until later in the hiring process to disclose their record, meaning that former offenders in search of meaningful work will stand less chance of being automatically disqualified from a job.

The move was lauded by criminal justice reform advocates across the political spectrum. This reform affects thousands of state job applicants and hundreds of thousands of occupational license applicants who want to work in one of the 200-plus licensed trades and professions.

Riley writes: "Gov. Rick Snyder set a good example for employers in Michigan and nationwide when it comes to hiring people with a criminal history."

Removing the requirement that applicants disclose their criminal history upfront gives former offenders a fair chance at getting a job. Potential employers will still be able to ask about this information later in the hiring process, and decide then whether it will impact the candidate’s ability to work safely and effectively. Some individuals do have past offenses that should disqualify them from a given line of work. But it’s much better to make employment decisions on a case-by-case basis instead of discarding applications from everyone with any kind of criminal history — especially when those offenses may be minor or completely unrelated to the work at hand.

The state government now joins a growing number of Michigan employers who successfully practice fair-chance hiring, including Butterball Farms, Sakthi Automotive, Cascade Engineering, Alta Equipment and many more. Anecdotal feedback from these employers indicates that, in general, former offenders work hard, appreciate their opportunity and are less likely to leave for another job.

And, thanks to the nationally recognized vocational training provided by the Michigan Department of Corrections, citizens returning from prison are highly skilled. This creates a win-win for employers feeling the strain of the talent gap and for individuals trying to get a job so they can get their lives back on track.

Leading by example, Snyder is taking the proper approach. Private-sector employers, if they choose, should still be able to require applicants to disclose their criminal history upfront.

In fact, Snyder helped cement this right by signing a bill last March that says counties and municipalities can’t enact ordinances that require local employers to practice fair chance hiring. Government does not need to further intervene in private employer-employee relationships, especially not on this issue.

Ending the stigma around criminal history requires a cultural shift that cannot be brought about with legislation from Lansing. In states that have banned the box by law, employers who were determined to screen for a criminal history got around the ban by screening for things that they thought might be a proxy for a criminal history, such as race or residency in a low-income neighborhood. This ended up excluding not only former offenders but many law-abiding working-class individuals and racial minorities, creating a bigger problem than existed before.

The better approach was to do what Snyder did: Decline to force the government into the private sector, and instead establish the state government as a model for forward-thinking hiring. It’s hard to overstate the importance of stable employment for citizens attempting to reintegrate safely and productively into society after a time in the criminal justice system.

Most former offenders have no history of violence and are capable of good work. As chief executive of state government, Snyder has done his share. Now other employers should take notice and follow his example of supporting former offenders so that we can all enjoy safe, productive and meaningful citizenship.

Kahryn Riley is director of the criminal justice initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy