SIDNEY — Finding a job as an unemployed citizen can be stressful, difficult and unpleasant.
Finding a job as a convicted felon can be nearly impossible.
A package of three bills in the Michigan Legislature is currently being discussed that would make it easier for state prison parolees to find work in Michigan.
At Monday afternoon’s Legislative Update meeting at Montcalm Community College, Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, updated a small crowd on the status of the three bills, which were recently reviewed by the House Commerce Committee, on which Outman sits.
“People get out of prison and we’re trying to make them productive citizens,” Outman said. “Either (parolees) are going to go back to prison because they can’t find employment and they fall back into the same crowd and the same lifestyle, or they are just going to be a drain on society because they are going to enter into a social safety net as opposed to being productive citizens. We’re trying to correct that.”
Outman said the three-bill package would introduce a “certificate of employability” for parolees who have demonstrated that they are capable of re-entering the work force.
“The certificate would be based on factors such as a prisoner’s criminal record, institutional behavior, job training and education received in prison,” he said.
According to the Pew Center on the States, based in Washington, D.C., one in three Michigan parolees commits a crime that sends them back to prison. Also, of those who are out of prison, about 75 percent are unemployed.
HB 5216, whose primary sponsor is Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, and HB 5218, sponsored by Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, focus on improving a prisoner’s behavior while behind bars and developing the skills needed to adjust to freedom.
“One of the ideas behind this, because a prison is a captive audience, it can also serve as an incubator for skilled trades, such as welding, electrical or plumbing,” Outman said.
Part of the bill package would provide business owners with less liability for hiring an ex-convict, as not to be sued if a parolee commits another crime on the job.
HB 5217, sponsored by Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, helps employers get past the issue of liability for hiring an ex-convict.
“We’re trying to encourage businesses to not be scared or as scared to hire parolees,” Outman said. “It’s a balancing act. It’s a great step toward reducing high employment rate. It gives a second chance to prisoners that wouldn’t otherwise be afforded that. It’s a huge workforce issue. There’s a big need for high-demand skills and training, and this could fill that.”
Outman added that, as a businesses owner of Outman Excavating in Six Lakes, he personally wouldn’t feel comfortable hiring a parolee under current Michigan laws.
“As a business owner, would I hire a parolee? I’d be nervous to,” he said. “I don’t know if those are people that I would want to send out on jobs. And as a business owner, am I liable if they do something? I have to weigh all of those factors.”
Outman also said he understands the point of view that this legislation would put parolees in direct competition of unemployed Michigan citizens.
“With the high employment rate, now you are putting parolees in direct competition with people who haven’t been in prison. Aren’t you hurting those people?” he said.
But Outman said if he were hiring between a parolee and a non-parolee, the choice would likely be obvious.
“If I were an employer, and I am, if I had two candidates for a job and all things being equal, if I saw some sort of criminal record I’d probably give the nod to the person who hadn’t been in prison,” he said. “But again, we’re trying to help those who are getting out of jail find employment and not be a drain on society. It costs a lot of money to incarcerate individuals.”
Outman said the primary purpose of the bill package is to get people back to work in Michigan.
In an article published Jan. 15 in The Detroit News, Kesto said the bills will help to accomplish that feat.
“We’re working in Michigan to get everyone back to work,” Kesto said. “We’re seeing Michigan coming back. With these bills, we’re removing barriers to felons and giving them a chance to be successful and contributing members of society.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.