This op-ed originally appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business.
Between 2 million and 3 million people in Michigan have a criminal conviction.
Ashley Carter, Director, Michigan Justice Fund and Ric DeVore, President, CFSEM
More than 8,000 come home from prison each year across the state. To realize Michigan’s full economic promise, we must support the economic mobility of these returning citizens.
Involvement in the criminal legal system can significantly impact an individual’s access to employment, housing and other opportunities. This harms individuals and families and further constrains the economic development of communities that an inordinate share of individuals with criminal records call home.
There is a direct link between lack of investment in community resources, socioeconomic disparities and incarceration rates.
Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by incarceration in Michigan. Black people represent roughly 14% of the population, but a staggering 53% of the state’s incarcerated population.
These cycles of poverty, racism and imprisonment have garnered the philanthropic community’s attention.
In 2020, initiated by Melanca Clark, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and several other funders established the Michigan Justice Fund to advance equitable justice policy and support transformational change taking place in communities throughout the state.
The collaborative, which the Community Foundation manages, has grown to include 14 national and local foundations. The Michigan Justice Fund has invested more than $5 million in organizations throughout the state that focus on issues in the criminal legal system.
One of the Michigan Justice Fund’s key objectives is to improve economic outcomes for people impacted by mass incarceration.
Many of our organizational partners work to break down employment barriers for returning citizens.
For example, a Michigan Justice Fund grantee, the New Beginnings program, which is based at the Women’s Resource Center in western Michigan, helps women in Kent County Jail find jobs after incarceration. Services include mentoring, individualized employment plans and connection to community resources. Eighty-five percent of the center’s clients secure employment and 86% remain employed six months later.
The Flint-based M.A.D.E. Institute, another Michigan Justice Fund grantee, gives returning citizens practical items like hygiene products and clothing, as well as pens and briefcases to take to interviews. M.A.D.E. Institute also helps its clients find affordable housing and train for work as entrepreneurs or in the Green Collar Economy.
The Michigan Justice Fund is proud to support these programs and other initiatives designed to expand access to economic opportunity. Returning citizens are valuable contributors to our workforce and provide energy and ideas that stimulate our statewide economy.
Michigan can and should do better. State and local governments currently offer an inconsistent patchwork of resources and access to opportunity that is often jurisdictionally determined. This area is ripe for innovation and exciting programming. Apprenticeship programs led by the small business community and public-private partnership pilots designed to address gaps in our current workforce would place Michigan at the forefront of economic development nationwide.
Our collective acknowledgment of the complexity of rebuilding life after incarceration also is essential to returning citizens’ success.
Wraparound services contemplative of transportation, housing and childcare needs would revitalize our current approaches to reentry. Relying less on incarceration, which the state currently funds to the tune of $2 billion per year, and more on community-based reentry supports designed to catalyze pathways to higher education and job opportunities for this unique population, can have a measurable impact on our statewide economy.
We also should ensure eligible individuals have the support they need to take advantage of Clean Slate legislation Michigan passed in 2020. Clean Slate helps residents more easily set aside public criminal records and broaden their access to employment opportunities. Michigan Justice Fund partner Safe & Just Michigan has been instrumental in advancing these efforts.
Michigan must focus on building strong, thriving communities and an inclusive economy. Investing in returning citizens’ success reduces crime, curbs recidivism and helps to build a brighter future for impacted individuals, their families and communities, and our entire state.
Ashley Carter, Director, Michigan Justice Fund
Ric DeVore, President, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan
Learn more about the Michigan Justice Fund