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Felons, Forgiveness, and Michigan’s Economy

Do tough rules prolong state’s hard time?

October 16, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Michigan spends about $2 billion a year on its prisons and criminal justice system.

When she was 24, Detroiter Dulcina Mims was convicted of a felony for writing bad checks. But even though she served her probation and paid restitution, Ms. Mims was, until very recently, still paying for a crime that she committed 14 years ago.

So, as it turns out, was the State of Michigan—and literally by its own choice.

That is because Michigan law blocked Ms. Mims from many good employment opportunities. So, as she slogged through a wearying list of poorly paid positions—from working in a factory to bartending in a strip joint—she added little to the local or state economy, or to the State of Michigan’s tax receipts.

"It’s been hard to find a decent job," Ms. Mims said recently, looking back at her years of struggle. "I’ve always had to work somewhere where they don’t do background checks."

Indeed, Ms. Mims actually tried, for several years, to lift herself and her three children out of their tight financial spot by studying to be a radiology technician. But that backfired badly: After running up a debt to pay for her studies, Ms. Mims discovered that her felony prevented her from working in the medical world. She couldn’t even volunteer at The Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

In fact, state law prohibits anyone who has committed any of a long list of felonies from gaining many different professionallicenses.

Last June, however, Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm proposed downgrading 142 felonies, including some instances of check fraud, to misdemeanors; reducing maximum sentences on some other felonies; and completely eliminating 25 rarely prosecuted felonies, including sodomy, which carries a 15-year maximum sentence. And while Governor Granholm’s proposal represents an attempt to slim down the corrections budget, some observers say that, by allowing people like Ms. Mims to find better jobs and make a contribution the state’s badly depleted tax base, the proposal could have a more far-reaching economic impact.

The High Cost of Hard Time
Given the state’s incarceration rate, the budget savings and bump in employment numbers from the changes the governor has suggested might be quite significant.

Michigan’s incarceration rate, which, thanks to its very strict sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, is 40 percent higher than that of its Great Lakes neighbors. The state currently imprisons about 51,000 people—and, in 2004, each prisoner cost the state about $77 per day, according to a report from the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. That adds up to more than $1.4 billion a year—about the size of the tax increases Lansing enacted last week early this month to close most of the $1.8 billion gap in this year’s state budget.

In all, last year, the state dedicated more than $2 billion to corrections programs, more than it spends on its 14 public universities. If Lansing enacted Governor Granholm’s proposal, it would save about $100 million in prison expenses alone over three years, according to Russ Marlan, Public Information Officer at the Michigan Department of Corrections.

But, hard costs aside, Dulcina Mims’ situation raises a larger question among some legal experts: Can ex-felons ever make a significantly positive economic contribution to the state? The answer, according to many legal experts, is that, right now, most of them cannot, at least for a very long time after they’ve served their sentences.

Off the Books
The laws that limit the prospects of former felon are broad. For one, they forbid many offenders from working in certain professions such as security, childcare, building maintenance, public transportation, landscaping, or food preparation at facilities for children or the elderly. But the laws also often make it difficult for ex-felons to live in public or subsidized housing—a government service often indispensable to low-income people trying to improve their lives.

According to Edward Hoort, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, this one-two punch effectively paralyzes the earning potential of many individuals with criminal records.

Mr. Hoort speaks from experience. His organization serves low-income residents in six counties, including Midland and Saginaw. He said the prohibitions against employing ex-felons can push them into more crime or force them onto welfare. And if they do find substantial employment, he said, it is frequently "off the books," which cuts into government revenues.

Proponents of laws limiting ex-felons’ professional opportunities claim that such policies protects vulnerable populations, but Miriam Aukerman, an attorney at the Re-Entry Law Project at Legal Aid of Western Michigan, asserts that the laws are too broad.

"I have clients with records who I would feel absolutely comfortable leaving my daughter with," said Ms. Aukerman, who recently helped Ms. Mims pull her life back together. "It’s a case-by-case thing, depending on how long it’s been, the nature of the crime, and what the person has done with themselves."

The governor’s plan, she said, might expand employment opportunities for some of her clients: "If that offense was a misdemeanor and not a felony, they would still be able to work, in many cases."

According to a June 2007 state analysis, the governor’s proposal would, each year, change about 10,600 felony cases to misdemeanor cases.

State Could ‘Reap Measurable Benefits’
Mr. Hoort thinks that change could help to invigorate the economies of communities across the state, especially low-income minority communities, where a significant portion of the population has some kind of a criminal record.

A 2004 study examining the relationship between employment and re-entry, entitled From Prison to Work: The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Re-Entry and conducted by The Urban Institute, in Washington, D.C., confirms Hoort’s assertion.

"Communities stand to reap measurable economic benefits with the return of former prisoners to the workforce," the study said. "They are also taxpayers and consumers who, by spending a portion of their income, could increase the demand for goods and services in their communities."

Instead, both state law and the private sector’s reluctance or refusal to hire felons contributes to the state’s severe recidivism rate, Mr. Hoort said. That recidivism rate, which stands at 48 percent, costs Michigan $120 million per year, according to the Department of Corrections’ Mr. Marlan. Data from the National Governor’s Association, however, more than doubles that estimate, to $224 million. Either way, said Mr. Hoort, the problem is large and self-evident.

"If you can’t get a legitimate job what type of job are you going to do?" he said. "An illegitimate job. That’s called recidivism."

One Happy Ending
Meanwhile, most of Michigan’s ex-felons remain trapped by their record. Even if the state did not attempt to limit their employment opportunities, Mr. Hoort points out that many companies are not interested in anyone with a felony record, no matter how long ago it occurred.

"If they see a felony, they just throw the application in the trash," Ms. Aukerman confirmed. "That label makes a huge difference."

As it turns out, Ms. Aukerman was able to help Ms. Mims qualify for expungement—a court order effectively erasing her record—last February. Now Ms. Mims has a job in a medical lab, and is volunteering at the children’s hospital that once had to refuse her. She believes that a job with full benefits and a livable wage is on the horizon.

"Everything has just opened up to me," she said. "I would have just been wasting my time if I hadn’t gotten that expungement."

But most ex-felons aren’t as lucky. Had Ms. Mims been found guilty of two, not one, count of bad check writing, or had she, at some point in her life, been convicted of any other crime, even a traffic violation, she would be permanently ineligible for expungement.

Stephanie Rudolph, a Michigan Land Use Institute fellow, is reporting for the Institute special series, Busted, which looks at what Michigan governments are and are not doing to solve the state’s severe economic and fiscal crisis. Stephanie has worked with ex-offender seeking employment opportunities in Pennsylvania. Her series continues next week; reach her at stephanie@mlui.org

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