Michigan Reentry Law Wiki

Minor Convictions Shouldn't Turn Into Life Sentences

From Reentry

Detroit Free Press

Minor convictions shouldn't turn into life sentences

February 23, 2007

Whatever idea you have of a "convicted felon," it's not Roosevelt Smith. The soft-spoken, retired autoworker has lived a better life, and done no more serious wrong, than most of us. Still, because he carries the felon tag, the 52-year-old Detroiter is jammed up. Despite carrying a 3.7-grade point average at Wayne County Community College District, he can't enter the school's nursing program because Michigan law prohibits him from working as a nurse.

"It's painful and embarrassing for me to even talk about this," Smith told me over lunch last week in downtown Detroit. "But my life is being ruined, really, for a traffic violation."

Roughly 1.8 million people in Michigan have criminal records, nearly one in four adults. Almost 1.3 million of them, or one in six adults, carry felonies, Michigan State Police data show.

The state puts plenty of restrictions on them, including gun ownership, access to public and university housing, admissions to law schools and employment in nursing homes, schools and security companies. Warren is even considering banning all registered sex offenders from city park and recreation centers -- a ban that could include a 17-year-old boy who had consensual sex with a 15-year-old classmate. That guy would also be disqualified from school jobs.

"We're making people unemployable and then subsidizing them in the welfare and prison system," said Miriam Aukerman of Legal Aid of Western Michigan. She recently expunged a record that had prevented a 53-year-old woman with a master's degree from working as a counselor because of a 1980s misdemeanor welfare fraud conviction. In another case she worked on, a 56-year-old laborer couldn't get a job because, at 17, he stole a bicycle and had a misdemeanor theft on his record.

Smith caught his case in April 1999 in Clinton Township, while driving home late at night after dropping off a coworker. A police officer stopped Smith for a traffic violation, searched his car and found a gun in a duffel bag on the back seat. The 9 m.m. Smith & Wesson was legally registered to Smith, but it's illegal to carry a gun inside a car without a permit. Smith, who shot at a range in Roseville, normally carried the gun in his trunk. But he had cleaned the trunk out the day before to sell the car.

In court, Smith pled no contest to attempting to carry a concealed weapon and served two years' probation. Smith thought it was behind him until he got a letter last year from WCCCD stating he could not enter the nursing program because of his criminal record. He tried to get the felony expunged but, under Michigan law, he could have only one offense and his record also included a misdemeanor for driving with a suspended license.

WCCCD Chancellor Curtis Ivery told me that the college's hands are tied, but he said state law should accommodate people like Smith. There's a nursing shortage in Michigan and Smith would make a good one.

"We need to look at these things on a case-by-case basis," Ivery said. "We don't want to hold people back."

With more employers and schools doing background checks, and technology providing easy access to criminal records, a person with a felony has small hope in a tight job market. Today, even minor felonies carry lifetime penalties, with so-called collateral consequences.

"It's very easy to get charged with a felony," said Detroit attorney Margaret Raben. "I've heard lawyers say to clients, 'Don't worry; it's just a felony conviction.' Maybe years ago that was OK advice, but it sure isn't today."

Unduly broad and harsh restrictions on felons fly in the face of new re-entry programs and other efforts to help offenders stay out of prison. In fact, even the Michigan Department of Corrections, which urges employers to hire parolees, can't legally hire them for any job. Recidivism rates are about 50%. Is it surprising that, after getting 100 job rejections, many ex-cons go back to what they know?

No doubt, some restrictions make sense. Pedophiles should not work in day care centers. But there should be some real connection between the crime and the restriction. That's not the case with Smith, or thousands of others like him.

State laws, and public attitudes, must change to give people like Smith a second chance. We all pay a price when they can't find work and move on with their lives.

/On the net: http://reentry.mplp.org and www.michbar.org <http://www.michbar.org>. *JEFF GERRITT* is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at gerritt@freepress.com <mailto:gerritt@freepress.com> or 313-222-6585./

  • Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.*

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