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Bankole: Ordinance would give inmates a second chance

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

An effort to reduce the stigma of a criminal record on Detroit residents is gaining steam and Detroit City Council member Janee' Ayers is leading that charge.

Ayers is pushing a proposed ordinance that would require businesses that receive tax breaks from the city to give its residents who have served time for prior convictions a second chance in employment.

The “Fair Chance” ordinance for Detroit follows a similar proposal — the Fair Chance Business Pledge — initiated by the Obama administration that has received commitments from more than 180 employers nationally that have pledged to make opportunities available for former inmates.

Among the companies that have signed on are SER Metro-Detroit, the University of Pennsylvania, Wal-Mart, Dropbox and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

In announcing the program on Aug. 16, the White House said the participating companies collectively employ 3 million people.

The Detroit ordinance, first proposed to Ayers in April by the Michigan chapter of the ACLU, could help remove the stigma of incarceration for some estimated 5,000 returning citizens.

Such an effort was begun in 2011 when the Detroit City Council approved a “ban the box” measure that removed the question about prior felony convictions on city job applications.

“As we look to increase workforce development and revitalize neighborhoods, we can’t leave anyone behind,” Ayers said.

Kimberly S. Buddin-Crawford, a legal fellow at the ACLU who has been working with Ayers’ office on the ordinance, said there are two key provisions.

The new ordinance would provide specific regulations and requirements as to when and how an employer or housing provider can access an individual’s criminal record in making hiring or tenancy decisions.

Buddin-Crawford said the goal is to have an inclusive and extensive ordinance with strong enforcement provisions and the hope is that council will pass it this year.

“A measure like this is long overdue. There are thousands of Detroiters in need of good jobs and quality housing who’ve been shut out from both because of mistakes in their past,” Buddin said.

“We cannot keep on punishing those who’ve already paid their debt to society.

“With a majority of returning citizens coming back to Wayne County and many of them to Detroit, it is important to have structures like this in place to assist them in reintegrating into society and become productive members of their community.”

According to the ACLU, about 101,700 African-Americans in Detroit — 15 percent of the population — have felony records, and more than a third of non-working men in the city, ages 25-54, have criminal records. The group also said unemployment among blacks in the state in 2014 was 15.8 percent which is three times higher than the state and the national rate.

“When ex-offenders, especially those convicted of non-violent crimes have paid their debt to society, it is our responsibility as elected officials to help ensure that they are not forced back into a life of crime due to the lack of opportunities for gainful employment,” said Detroit City Council member Mary Sheffield, whose district covers part of downtown.

The fair chance policy has garnered support nationally from the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for rights of low wage workers.

That group issued a report in June that said employment was the single most important influence on decreasing recidivism. A three-year study, the report added, showed that “formerly incarcerated persons with one year of employment had a 16 percent recidivism rate over three years as compared to a 52.3 percent recidivism rate for all Department of Correction releases.”

In May, the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously approved a vote for a similar ordinance after Michigan United launched the Fair Chance for All project.

“If we want to achieve racial equity in Detroit, we should start thinking about criminal justice reform at the local level,” said Branden Snyder, director of organizing at Michigan United, a supporter of the Detroit effort. “So many folks have been over-incarcerated. They deserve a fair shot in the workforce.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also is on board, his chief of staff Alexis Wiley said.

“This is a high priority for the mayor,” Wiley said.

“We look forward to reviewing the ordinance. The mayor shares council member Ayers’ effort in making sure returning citizens have as many opportunities as possible including jobs.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.