Mark Miller and Kenyatta Brame Testify Before State of Michigan Law and Justice Committee

Gongwer article: Business leaders praise Vocational Village, ask for other changes

May 22, 2017
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending
Miller and Brame
Image from CAPPS

Business leaders from around the state seeking to hire those being released from prison or jail praised the Vocational Village program in Ionia in a House committee this week and asked for more changes in the state’s criminal justice policies to remove barriers to hiring former prisoners.

The House Law and Justice Committee has been hearing presentations on the safe rehabilitation of prisoners. On Tuesday, Talent 2025, a group of 100 CEOs working to make West Michigan a top 20 employment region by 2025; Cascade Engineering; Mercy Health; and Business Leaders for Michigan spoke to the committee about their experiences hiring recent inmates – whom they preferred to call “returning citizens” – and offered recommendations for other reforms the state should pursue.

Vocational Village, a skilled trades training program for prisoners in Ionia, received considerable praise from those in the business community, and many encouraged the committee to expand the program.

John Schwartz, regional vice president at Mercy Health, said under current law, those coming from a career in health care serve a much longer punishment after jail time and probation.

Mr. Schwartz said in February 2016, he received a letter that Mercy Health had to fire one of its employees who had been charged with drunken driving and served two weeks jail time with work release. A letter from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said that employee was now prohibited from work in most health care settings until 2028.

“I think we all have to recognize to err is human. And people make mistakes,” he said. “It does not necessarily make them bad people. … It doesn’t necessarily put our patients at harm. They are not at risk because someone made a mistake.”

Mr. Schwartz said he is asking for the state to allow employers to make some of these determinations on their own.

“We suggest that we are capable of doing that,” he said. “And we do have systems and wrap-around services. And we do thorough testing before employment and during employment so that we are ensuring we are providing our patients a safe environment.”

Rep. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) questioned changing those rules because a person would not have easy access to a different health care provider that did not hire former inmates if that was their preference.

Mr. Schwartz said that some health care facilities are already hiring former inmates, but under current law the returning inmate might have to wait 10 or 15 years to take a job again.

“What we’re saying is, if we really believe they served their punishment and that they are ready to return to society, why are we also prohibiting them from being employed in a field in which they may be licensed to perform work and hold a valid license in the state of Michigan that hasn’t been revoked,” he said.

Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president of Cascade Engineering, said the company considers all qualified candidates regardless of a person’s criminal record. He said the company has “moved the box” and does not ask applicants about their criminal record until further along in the process.

He said the company looks at the length of time the person served, circumstances of the offense, the number of convictions and the applicant’s employment record since conviction. It also takes into account input from community partners the company is working with.

“Cascade Engineering believes that, as a member of the community, we have an obligation to consider returning citizens for employment. We believe that a person should not forever be punished. We believe in redemption. We believe in second chances,” he said.

Mr. Brame said if the state provided additional funds for training to employers, it may incentivize more companies to hire someone they would not have otherwise and assist companies that already do.

Mark Miller, CEO of the company, said recent inmates often lack emotional intelligence, and if the state could help with that kind of training, it would be beneficial to companies.

Mr. Miller said hiring recent inmates simply makes good business sense.

“Some people do this because it feels good and some because it helps the bottom line. We want to prove both,” he said.

Tim Sowton, representing Business Leaders for Michigan, said talent is one of the most important factors businesses look at when deciding where to locate. Mr. Sowton noted the state is paying $700 million more on corrections than public universities.

“That is money we think we would be better spent in areas like higher education, like the skilled trades training fund,” he said, pointing to businesses that are unsuccessfully seeking skilled workers.

He said smart criminal justice reforms are important to put Michigan in a place to prosper in the future.

Original source:
Release date: May 11, 2017

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