Expunged records, access to food benefits, reduced driver’s license suspensions and statewide reform to mandatory minimums were all supported by the Michigan Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.
That’s good news to many Detroiters who have felt the impact of the criminal justice system long after they repaid their debt to society. While many applaud the state for its progressive bipartisan efforts, Detroiters who have returned home say the next step is further support for education and training programs so that returning citizens can find employment, while ultimately contributing to reduced recidivism rates.
Under new laws, Michiganders will be able to expunge an unlimited amount of misdemeanors and some felonies from their public record, which should assist many in the job application process. The state will also eliminate mandatory length-of-time jail sentences for Michigan drivers whose licenses have been suspended or for those convicted of driving while impaired.
Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes like missed child support payments are expected to be repealed. Former rules disqualifying returning citizens from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were also reversed.
Ashley Blake, Regional Director Midwest at the Center for Employment Opportunities, lauded the state’s new policies. According to CEO, 91 percent of returning citizens are food insecure.
CEO-Detroit worked with several local organizations to advocate against the SNAP ban in 2020 and has continued to advocate for workforce development programs. Blake said Detroit has strong and supportive legislative representation that has also made a difference not just in securing SNAP benefits, but furthering access to education and eventually employment.
“We are grateful to see the conversation move in this direction,” Blake said. “What we see every day in our work, which is specific to workforce development, is there’s a lot of overlap with post-secondary education opportunities. Because when folks come home they want to be able to take care of themselves and their families. That is their priority.”
A federal Pell Grant program was also expanded in 2020, allowing current incarcerated individuals to apply for financial aid to use at specific colleges. The program was expanded from three to five schools in Michigan, but doesn’t include Detroit-area colleges, though local officials say they hope that will change.
“We’d love to do it, especially with the population we serve, but they were being very selective at the time when the program started,” Wayne County Community College Chancellor Curtis Ivery said.
One Detroiter, Lionel, who was arrested and charged in the 1990s, has recently returned to the city. He earned his GED and an associate’s degree in Christian counseling while incarcerated. He plans to apply to expunge his record, especially after being turned down for jobs in the past due to his criminal background. Lionel said he’s glad to see Michigan move forward in progressive criminal justice reform, but that there are some things policymakers just don’t understand if they’ve never been within the system themselves.
“Yes, these are definitely good things; however, there are some things that could be done, I believe, before you get released, so that you have a head start on getting your life back in order.
Last year Lionel was enrolled in a CEO- Detroit work program where he was eligible to receive a stipend just as coronavirus forced businesses and schools to close in-person contact.
“I wasn’t working at the time and it was a true blessing,” Lionel said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
CEO Detroit provides employment services for recently incarcerated people. Their pilot stipend program launched in seven cities during the pandemic to supplement income for 700 returning citizens who were given up to $2,250 over three months.
Michigan’s Department of Corrections has already been lauded for its Vocational Village program, which has 10 skilled trades training programs within two prisons. However, it’s limited in capacity and not all inmates have access to the program.
For recently returned citizens like Edward Callens, the state’s new orders are helpful but “not a complete solution.”
“Expanding educational access to people that are incarcerated is just so huge,” Callens said. “It opens up the opportunity for you to have a fulfilling career and do something positive for yourself. So the opportunity to pursue an education while incarcerated, it gives you a step up before you get out and that’s phenomenal.”
Callens said the change in SNAP benefits is helpful but also doesn’t solve the problem. Callens said far too many returning citizens need supplemental help when they get home.
“If someone has every opportunity when they get out of prison but can’t put food on the table, I feel that’s a ticket straight into recidivism.”
Like Lionel, Callens was also enrolled in CEO’s stipend program last year. He was able to use the money to support his education and pay for a 15-week intensive course that allowed him to receive several certifications. He hopes to use this new knowledge as a foundation for a career in the energy sector.
“Without that stipend program I think it would have been very difficult to maintain that, you know, especially amid a pandemic when everybody’s kind of uncertain,” Callens said.