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

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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