Ban-the-box policy to hire ex-inmates is gaining backers

people working

Lazlo LLC founder Christian Birky (left) hired ex-prison inmate Aaron Branch. Branch works to make high-end T-shirts for Lazlo, a fashion startup that operates out of Ponyride, a coworking space for light manufacturing companies in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Branch spent 22 years in state prison. (Photo by Ed Ballotts)

Jordan Abdullah checked the box. Again and again on job searches after he left prison in 2015, the ex-felon marked the space where job applications ask about whether he had a criminal history.

Eventually, tired of getting turned down, Abdullah, 24, said he lied about his criminal record, only to be fired when an employer found out.

“A lot of people don’t really want to risk hiring someone like me,” said Abdullah, who served time for armed assault.

In Abdullah’s account of his crime, he saw a man beating a child in 2013 and intervened. The situation escalated into a brawl, a gun was involved, and the man was shot in the leg. He says now he should have just called the police. Abdullah served his time and finally, after finding an employer who willing to give him a chance, Abdullah is an ironworkers apprentice helping to build the new Little Caesars Arena for the Red Wings in Detroit.

The checkbox has long been an object of fear and dread for people like Abdullah. Now, a new effort to get rid of it is gathering steam. The “ban the box” movement advocates that ex-offenders can be a valuable source of labor as the unemployment rate ticks lower and it’s becoming harder to find people with experience in the trades.

Proponents also see it as a way to remove barriers to work for a population of people that often has limited skills or gaps in their work histories. Getting a job will also help lower the chances that they will return to prison.

In all, 24 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted ban-the-box policies, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy organization that studies the issue. The city of Detroit removed the box from its job applications and requires contractors to do the same, according to the employment law project. The Michigan Department of Corrections backs the concept; Gov. Rick Snyder has said he is open to considering it.

The movement is by no means embraced across the business community. In a 2014 poll, 88 percent of Michigan business owners surveyed by the National Federal of Independent Business said they opposed a law that would prevent them for asking about criminal history on a job application.

Charlie Owens, the NFIB state director, told Michigan Radio at the time that there’s a cost to delaying asking the question: “You’ve wasted the prospective employee’s time….you’ve wasted your time…not to mention the expense involved and you get to start over.”

Still others have argued that “ban-the-box” laws, while well-meaning, can have unintended consequences that some research shows increase racial disparities in employment.

Jennifer Doleac, a nonresident fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, fears employers will be more likely to steer clear of African-American or Hispanic applicants on the conjecture that they are more likely to have served time than a white job candidate.

“Just because employers can’t see an applicant’s criminal history doesn’t mean they don’t care about it,” she wrote. “ Under ‘ban the box,’ they will avoid ex-offenders by avoiding groups that are more likely to contain ex-offenders, like black and Hispanic men,” harming members of those groups who haven’t served time.

Delaying judgment

Banning the box doesn’t mean ending criminal background checks.

Employers who have taken the checkbox off of their applications say they still check backgrounds, but leave the discussion about an applicant’s record until later in the process, after they and others in the organization have had a chance to meet the person, with perhaps only a few senior managers ever aware.

Several employers said they use their discretion on the types of convictions they will allow in considering applicants; some pass on candidates with violent or sexual offenses, while others are willing to look past the nature of the offense if the candidate shows technical aptitude.

“We’re doing it because we have a business need, and we’re pursuing it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Rebecca Dioso, human resources vice president for Alta Equipment Co. in Livonia, just west of Detroit, a forklift and heavy construction equipment distributor.

The company took the checkbox off of its job applications a few years ago and hired its first ex-inmate in 2014, Dioso said. Today it employs five — less than 1 percent of Alta’s 735-person workforce. The company is in the process of hiring its sixth, who still is incarcerated.

Yet even as more are willing to consider ex-offenders, convincing employers to hire someone with a felony record remains a hurdle.

State corrections administrators have made re-entry employment a priority. The department has opened new vocational training programs within two prisons, intended for inmates who show the most potential for employment. Re-entry specialists shop inmates’ resumes around to employers and take them to career fairs. They refer their best candidates directly to employers and to nonprofits that help with financial coaching and job placement. In some cases, they set up video interviews while the inmate is still incarcerated. Some have left prison with job offers.

Companies can receive tax credits and other incentives for hiring ex-offenders. Much of the new interest, however, is driven by business realities. A number of managers say their employees with felony convictions are among their most dedicated, perhaps because they recognize the job is a second chance.

“No one as a 5-year-old child says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a drug dealer,'” Dioso said, adding that if ex-inmates have no job or support system upon release, “(if) someone says, ‘If you take this from Point A to Point B and I’ll pay you $200,’ guess what? You’re going to do that so you can get your kids dinner.”

Skilled trades shortage

At Alta, the decision to recruit parolees started with a math problem.

When Dioso started with the company more than three years ago, she and her team looked at the demographics of their mechanics to estimate how many might retire by the time they turn 65. The numbers stunned her: Between 40 percent and 60 percent of the company’s mechanics could be ready to retire within four to six years — between 120 and 180 employees.

“That is a massive number,” Dioso said.

So massive that it quickly prompted conversations about how to get enough mechanics in the pipeline amid a steep shortage in people with skills in the trade. Alta even bought a building and leased a portion of it to a for-profit company that created a heavy equipment mechanic training program; in exchange for Alta paying a portion of a student’s training, the candidate commits to three years of employment for Alta.

Two-thirds of Alta’s business comes from the forklift side. It has more than $300 million in revenue from business in three states — Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.

Alta started to work with various state departments and nonprofits that serve ex-offenders, including the Michigan Department of Corrections; Michigan Rehabilitation Services, a unit of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that helps people with disabilities; and Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, whose “Flip the Script” program prepares people with felony records for work.

Dioso said Alta generally doesn’t consider applicants convicted of violent crimes. It conducts an extensive background check after a job offer is extended, when a discussion about a criminal history would happen. If a candidate is referred from a service agency, she said it’s likely she already knows about the record.

Usually, just two people — Dioso and a human resources manager — are aware of a new hire’s record, she said.

The company’s starting wage ranges from $15 to $18 an hour depending on the type of equipment an employee handles. Dioso said all five of its ex-offender employees earn more than starting wage. A road technician, the first one to be hired, earns $23.40 an hour and received a promotion within his first six months, she said.

“It’s safe to say that he’s earning well in excess of $50,000 a year as a mechanic,” with full benefits, she said. “Every year, he writes me the nicest thank-you letter: ‘You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed my family. You’ve changed my neighborhood. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.’ I put my neck out there, and it was a good decision.”

Prison-to-job lifeline

The link between employment and staying out of prison shows up in the numbers.

In 1998, close to half of all inmates paroled that year — 45.7 percent — wound up back behind bars within three years.

Since then, the state corrections department has focused on changing prison culture to emphasize successful release, said Janella Robinson, regional manager for field operations for the Michigan Department of Corrections. That includes identifying the reasons why someone might be doing time and offering help, such as substance-abuse counseling or general or vocational education.

Today, prison return rates are declining in Michigan. Of those paroled in 2012, the most recent year available, 31 percent returned within three years, state data show. The data predate some of the department’s current initiatives, including Vocational Village, a residential skills training program at prisons in Ionia and Jackson that launched last year.

In general, between 8,500 and 12,000 people are paroled in a given year, data show. It’s difficult to say definitively whether the increased emphasis on post-prison employment — from skills training to employer outreach — caused the drop in recidivism. Yet it undoubtedly has helped, Robinson said.

“We know that not every company is going to ban the box,” said Robinson, who previously worked as a prisoner re-entry specialist covering Southeast Michigan. “We just want employers not to exclude the population.”

Advocates for the prison population say the challenges run deep. In Detroit, service providers face a “perfect storm” that includes job seekers with felony convictions along with those with high illiteracy rates and suspended driver’s licenses, said Keith Bennett, director of Goodwill Detroit’s “Flip the Script” program.

“What employers are finding is if they wait the process out until we can really get someone ready, then it’s worth the wait,” Bennett said.

Kit McDonald, who owns a small auto shop called DK’s Repairs in Detroit, hired an ex-offender in September after someone with the state corrections department noticed a job he’d posted on Craigslist and asked if he’d be willing to consider someone coming out of prison.

The parolee he hired, Jacob Pratt, studied automotive repair through the Vocational Village program in Ionia but had little hands-on work experience.

Before prison, Pratt said, he had few job skills and often resorted to crime — including selling drugs — to make money. He said he did some jail time for a drunken fight in 2012 in Oakland County, and another fight while intoxicated a few years later sent him to prison for a probation violation.

The mechanic job is a new path, he said, for him and his young son.

“If no one helps them, they’re going to be right back out there doing the same thing they did because they can’t get a job and they don’t have money,” McDonald said, adding that he doesn’t dwell on an applicant’s criminal past during interviews. “He may be the best employee you’ll ever have. You don’t know that, but he’s sure not going to be the best employee you ever had if you don’t give him a shot.”

Sewing skills

Christian Birky and his sister cofounded Lazlo LLC, a fashion startup in a coworking space in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, in 2015 with dual goals: To pay a living wage of $15, and to hire someone who had been in prison.

Birky tutored in prisons during his junior year at Princeton University, where he wrote a senior thesis on American prison policy. He has an interest in social justice.

Lazlo specializes in luxury T-shirts priced at $120 for white and $160 for an indigo version that are hand-dyed inside the company’s headquarters. A second clothing line, dubbed TBD, is set to launch at a lower price to reach a broader market.

He reached out to the state corrections system and asked if they knew anyone who might be close to release who had some skills in sewing. Prison administrators connected Birky with Aaron Branch, who served 22 years in prison for assault with intent to commit murder in an incident, he said, involving a friend. While in prison, he was brought up on charges of assaulting a staffer that he said landed him in a solitary cell for more than six years.

Branch said it was then that his attitude began to change. His behavior improved. He got a job sewing for Michigan State Industries, which employs prisoners to produce items for use inside and outside prisons. Branch, 47, said he sewed duffel bags, mattress covers, kitchen linens and other fabrics.

He was released in September 2015. He had no credit history, no driver’s license, no place to live. But he had a job.

Birky interviewed Branch for the Lazlo job via the Internet video chat service Skype while Branch was still in prison. Despite the fact that he didn’t technically have a formal job offer at the time, Branch said, “in my mind, I had the job.”

Birky said he didn’t interview anyone else for the job.

More opportunities

The corrections department has revamped some training programs, including automotive repair, and introduced others based on market demand for skills, Robinson said.

She added that the department invited the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union into Vocational Village and asked about the current skills electricians need to help improve its program.

The state has partnered with Pinnacle Truck Driver Training Inc., a training school in Cadillac, to help prepare new truck drivers. As many as 15 ex-offenders have completed training so far, said Tim Baker, Pinnacle’s operations vice president. Trucking, facing a shortage in labor, has turned more to drivers with criminal records, Baker said — a “game-changer” in an industry that charges higher insurance premiums to companies that hire felons.

Partnerships with service organizations like Goodwill and labor unions have helped create more opportunities, Robinson said.

Abdullah, who once felt compelled to lie about his past on a job application to get his foot in the door, was accepted as an ironworkers apprentice. The Detroit resident says he has done some of the ironwork at the new Little Caesars Arena under construction downtown.

“If you’re around somebody who’s fighting in your corner … that alone is priceless,” he said.

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Linda Brauer
Sun, 01/29/2017 - 6:24am

Great to hear! It's amazing what people can accomplish when they have reason to hope and they know that they matter!

Kevin Grand
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 5:36am

<i>"In a 2014 poll, 88 percent of Michigan business owners surveyed by the National Federal of Independent Business said they opposed a law that would prevent them for asking about criminal history on a job application.Charlie Owens, the NFIB state director, told Michigan Radio at the time that there\'92s a cost to delaying asking the question: \'93You\'92ve wasted the prospective employee\'92s time\'\'92ve wasted your time\'85not to mention the expense involved and you get to start over.\'94 "</i>If you have some companies who are willing to accept applicant with a criminal history, and those same companies think it is a viable solution for their specific situation, good for them.But when the overwhelming majority of business owners are opposed to this, then why even continue to pursue changing the law?

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 12:28pm

Yes, Kevin: Your quote: "But when the overwhelming majority of business owners are opposed to this, then why even continue to pursue changing the law?" pretty much explains why this state is in the shape it is in for the most vulnerable. This is a state "of the corporations, for the corporations, by the corporations". You smart business men may have healthy bottom lines and spend all of your spare time counting your money (how much is enough, by the way?), but for sure you don't have all the answers. You would like us to believe you do, but trust me you don't. The saddest part is you, like so many of our other institutions, live in the insular world of white males, who think mistakes must be punished to the greatest extent of the law, have no clue as to why the kids of today are struggling, the prisons are full, the schools are falling apart.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 2:42pm

Bernadette, let me ask you this simple question: Have you ever gone to one of those people standing on the side of the road, holding up a sign, and asked that person for a job?I don't need to consult my Magic 8-Ball to know that the answer is a resounding "no".You wouldn't go to someone like that, because they aren't hiring.On the flip side, if people view corporations as a never-ending supply of cash to tapped on whenever someone's conscience needs assuaging, those companies aren't going to stick around for very long (see Exhibit "A" - Detroit...especially pre-bankruptcy, See Exhibit "B" - The state of Illinois).If those same companies don't view operating within a geographic boundary very favorably, they will shut their doors or they will move to some place that they do find favorable to do business in.And when (not if) those businesses decide leave Michigan because of ever-growing regulatory hurdles to doing business, who will be impacted more?Think about that.

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 4:25pm

Kevin,You have one set of lens that you look through, and that is one of the business man. The social climate in MI has degraded substantially since this administration has taken over. The reason for that is directly related to the tax cuts for business, deregulation to make business easier, etc.Have you ever heard of the Golden Rule: Treating others as you would be treated. Let me ask you a question: Do you have children or grandchildren? Native Americans make plans considering the impact on the next 7 generations. I wonder what this state or country will look like in 7 generations. Our current leadership looks just as far as their current party desires, with no discernment about the impact to the future.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 7:14pm

<b>I</b> look through one set of lens???The last time that I checked, Michigan was one of 50-states that had (allegedly) emerged from national recession.It shouldn't be necessary to remind anyone here that the last president felt that dumping truckloads of money at the problem was the panacea and be-all-end-all solution to that problem.It only ended up having more Americans <a href=" rel="nofollow">not participating in the labor force.</a>More Americans <a href="" rel="nofollow">on government assistance.</a>And more national debt (on the "official" books) <a href=" rel="nofollow">than every president before him combined.</a>How do you think the next generation will judge the results <b>that</b> "solution"?

Sun, 01/29/2017 - 9:52am

I own a small, but growing, start up technology company. We have ignored the box and hired several people who've run afoul of the law. Not one has failed to take the opportunity to get back in the game and succeed. Some of that recognition is certainly due to the fact that not many companies would even offer them an interview, let alone a job. I, for one, am sick of the way the judicial system works to keep them prisoners for life. The system is not set up for rehabilitation, but most certainly is intended to cement the money, power and self serving corruption that results. There are so many laws and regulations that are on the books that I can say that most, if not all, of us have broken the law and could have been put in jail at some point. So why don't elect politicians to correct a judicial system, which simply offers the solution of more prisons, judges, police and taxes? Well, it's simply not in the systems best interests....that's why. And we're part of that circular logic by yelling for more punishment and not reasonable laws and a justice which is not interested in garnering more power and wealth.

William Hammond
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 8:02am

With the explosion of people caught up in the system since Bill Clinton's Crime Initiative of the 1990's, now shown to have been badly flawed, we must do everything we can to reverse this trend and to help out those who were imprisoned as a result. I applaud those employees willing to step out in faith and help change people's lives. The more employers give these people a chance the better our communities will be. Thank you Bridge Magazine for another excellent article!

Sun, 01/29/2017 - 10:26am

Everyone deserves a second chance! Thank you for those people and organizations Who embrace second chances for ex offenders.

Frank Kalinski
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 8:04am

Maybe consider changing the "status" from prisoner to "employee" of the State upon release. We, as the State of Michigan, would take on health care and pay a stipend for work in the local community such as park and city property upkeep, building mulch beds, clearing snow from sidewalks until a job is found. Then the employer would ramp up responsibility for training, pay and health care while state backs down responsibilty for that person. This would reduce risk/cost for business and offer a path to a productive life for former prisoner.

Steve Williams
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 9:49am

Hiding, or doing away with, criminal history checks is not a solution. Many employers have positions that require unsupervised contact with other employees or the public. They have to know the background of prospective employees so as to provide due diligence in protecting other employees and the public. And beyond that, there is the legal liability. Would the public support a waiver of liability for employers hiring ex-offenders - what about drunk drivers for jobs requiring driving, what about rapists for sales positions, what about drug abusers for positions where financial trust is required?Doing the check later in the process wastes people's time.This is a big problem, and a better solution is needed than the ones suggested. One component is fewer criminals, which is a topic to itself.

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 9:55am

We in Isabella County are in the process of starting the Isabella Nonprofit Center which will house many of our local social service organizations. Two areas where we have voids are for veterans and prisoner reentry. Both are critically important and we welcome suggestions on how to include them.

Jim De Lange
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 3:22pm

Good dialogue from both sides. However one statistic is troubling. 31 % of paroles back in the system within 3 years. Those are just the ones caught again, and convicted. Curious what the estimated overall recidivism rate is for those released that go back to crime in general.

Michael Kiella
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 3:28pm

Here's another way to look at it.Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $28,117*Average Daily Inmate Population: 45,096Annualized costs using these figures (28117x45096) = $1,267,964,232 ... 1.3 billion dollarsI beg this question: if these are good numbers, and if recidivism (return to prison within 3-years) is high, then what have we gotten for our money? Let me repeat, our money? Ours.If we collectively don't mind that each taxpayer is contributing to the $28K per year cost of incarcerating each prisoner, then the argument is moot. We feel good about punishing folks and making them "pay for their crimes". Here is the irony in that argument: they don't pay, we do. We pay. $1.3B each year.So, the economically sound alternative is to find a way to stop the revolving door. It seems to me that stable work is a way to do that.I'd rather pay for a program that successfully reduces the fiscal burden on the taxpayer, than to feed the revolving door. It's like the song that never ends, it goes on and on my friends, people started singing it just because, now they keep on singing it just because, it's the song that never ends, it goes on and on my friends, people started singing it just because, now they keep on singing it just because, it's...* and

Steve Williams
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 3:41pm

Michael,You are only looking at one side of the ledger. What would be the cost if those prisoners were not in prison? I don't know the answer, but I bet someone does and it is substantial. Is it greater than $28,000 or less? Also your $28,000 does not include the cost of putting them there. Look at property values in crime ridden neighborhoods. Dollars and cents are part of the equation, but they are not the only part and your simplistic argument doesn't add anything to the discussion. The bigger question is how to reduce crime, and how to assist those prisoners that can, and want to, reenter civilized society.

Michael Kiella
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 4:08pm

Steve,I am only speaking of incentive, not social programming.The problem is feeding the revolving door. This is the economic incentive for our society to accept an alternative cost for those that want to "reenter civilized society".Perhaps "ban the box" is part of that solution. I don't know. But paying #1.3B per year to do nothing sure isn't it, either.We have become complacent with just paying the money, hoping for change, getting the same result, and then complaining.The more complex issue, as you sorta point out, is how do civilized societies act to reduce and manage the criminal element...The first thing is to understand the cost, and then explore cost effective alternatives to human warehousing.

Steve Williams
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 4:27pm

Michael,I think you are still missing the point. If it costs $1.38 billion per year to keep them in prison and that prevents $2.38 billion in other cost - murder, assault, rape, burglary, embezzlement, cheating on taxes, fraud, etc., then from a pure financial point of view the $1.38 billion was well spent.

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 4:12pm

Michael,I could not agree more. Remember, prisons now are big private business!! Our state is "of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations". This state lacks competent leadership, innovation, and compassion.

Jay Stark
Tue, 01/24/2017 - 10:35am

Five or six years ago I taught a pre-release class in one of Jackson's prisons. I advised the students to write on the form (when it had the box) "would like to discuss at interview." And of course, there are financial incentives to hiring the ex-con. They are bonded and there are tax credits for any employer that's open enough to hire.There's a lot to consider. But heck, I'm just glad to see the recidivism rate go down.

Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:49am

As someone who has employees and one who has hired ex-cons, it is unreasonable to say that I shouldn't be allowed to know of past serious problems and yes tendencies of those I hire and where I should be comfortable putting that employee. We have a definite shortage of employable or employment seeking individuals and any employer is looking for potential good employees and yes should be willing to give individuals with past problems a chance, but that doesn't mean having your head stuck in the sand.