For the past few years, there has been a quiet policy revolution sweeping Michigan on criminal justice reform issues. Groups across the political spectrum have been working together on issues like rolling back the overwhelming number of crimes on the books, reforming civil asset forfeiture, expunging criminal records, raising the age to try teenagers as adults for some criminal offenses, changing the bail system and more.
These bills and more have been introduced and are moving through the Legislature with large bipartisan majorities. And it’s working – Michigan has cut the number of prisoners by 20 percent and crime rates have continued to trend downward. The state is saving money and citizens are as safe as they’ve been in decades.
That continued last week when reforms passed regarding occupational licensing laws. In Michigan, more than 20 percent of the jobs – nearly a million across the state – require a license. This totals nearly 200 professions. For the vast majority of these jobs, people with criminal records – even misdemeanors and civil crimes – can be restricted or banned from receiving any type of license. This includes careers like hairdressers, makeup artists, masseuses, landscape architects, painters, barbers, roofers and concrete pavers.
There is thought to be several million people in the state with criminal records. Many are locked out of these professions because they can’t get a license. But this doesn’t make us safer. Ex-offenders are out in society and most of them are working – many stuck in low-wage jobs, others may be working in the skilled trades unlicensed and illegally, and others still face little alternative but to go back to a life of crime.
A bill package, which passed the House nearly unanimously, redefines the “good moral character” provision of licensing laws, which is what denies people with criminal records from getting a state license. If this package passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Snyder, most people with criminal records would be eligible for a license to work provided their offense was not directly related to the area they want to work in.
While no person or business should ever be forced to hire someone with a criminal background, they should have the option to do so legally. The question for society is, after a person has served their time and paid their fine, should they continue to be punished, potentially for the rest of their life? Perhaps in rare cases, but for the most part, it’s better for them and the rest of us if they’re given at least a second chance.
The bill package – House Bills 6110-6113, 6058-6060 and 6381 – were sponsored by a cross-section of lawmakers.
Some groups focus on the fiscal side of policies. Other on the rule of law and Constitutional rights. The race and socioeconomic status of most individuals affected by these laws is most important to some. For most organizations, it’s parts of all of the above.
The important thing is that all came together to pass good policy reform. At least in the area of criminal justice reform, Washington, D.C. could learn a big lesson from Michigan.
Jarrett Skorup is the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.