On September 7, Michigan announced it will stop requiring applicants for most occupational and construction code licenses to check a box on the application form disclosing whether they have ever been convicted of a felony. Governor Rick Snyder (R) announced the policy change by the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).

Snyder also said he would sign an executive order, effective October 1, directing state agencies to remove the felony conviction question box from applications for state jobs, unless mandated under state or federal law.

As that exception suggests, the state will continue to make felony conviction inquiries for specific jobs and licenses, mostly in health care. However, the governor says he’s willing to work with LARA on possible revisions to what’s required in those areas.

Stressing the importance of the state serving as a role model, Snyder said that if the state was going to urge others to do it, “we should be doing it ourselves.” The term-limited governor added helping inmates re-enter society by getting careers as electricians, plumbers, or barbers, was a “win for all of us.”

The “ban the box” movement has long sought to achieve removal of criminal history inquiries from applications for employment and educational opportunities and has achieved some significant successes (Snyder’s action made Michigan the 32nd state to adopt “ban the box” for state workers by legislation or policy, although only 11 states have extended that restriction to private employers). Although a number of “ban the box” bills had been introduced in the Michigan legislature, none had made it all the way to enactment.

Advocates of banning the application form box inquiring about criminal convictions argue such preliminary-stage inquiries act to screen out former inmates very early in a job hiring or education admissions process before their credentials can be fully considered. As a result, serious harm can be done to the rehabilitation prospects of former inmates urgently needing gainful employment; being unable to obtain legitimate work makes them more likely to re-offend.

In March, Gov. Snyder signed into law a measure that generally bars local governments from enacting or enforcing ordinances that set what information employers can and cannot ask job applicants during interviews. Two years earlier, the state adopted a similar law barring local enactments on what employers can include in their application forms.

Snyder described his latest “ban the box” action as part of his campaign for “smart justice,” which has drawn praise both from civil liberties activists and free-market advocates within the business community.

In 2017, Snyder signed another bill that permits the state’s Department of Corrections to hire formerly convicted felons. During his administration, the Department of Corrections created a “Vocational Village” – a special hands-on job training unit offering skilled trade programs designed to help inmates connect with jobs – at two state prisons, with a third planned for a women’s prison.

On the day Snyder made his “ban the box” announcement, Michigan’s corrections and licensing agencies also signed a memorandum of understanding designed to make sure inmates trained in a skilled trade will qualify for Michigan’s license for that occupational license

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).