As we honor Martin Luther King, Jr and his legacy this week, it’s important to examine the intersection of two issues that he devoted energy and attention to: race relations and economic equality. Though his fight for economic equality of the United States’ black citizens occurred decades ago, countless examples let us know the disparities still persist. One such example is in Michigan.

The relationship between these areas is ever-present in Michigan through the racial disparity in unemployment rates. Although nationally, unemployment rates are down, this trend is not as apparent in minority communities. By 2015, the unemployment rate for the state of Michigan was 12.4% for blacks, while only 3.7% for whites.

The true jobless number for African-Americans is probably much larger, as unemployment rates fail to account for discouraged job-seekers who have stopped looking for work. For individuals with criminal records, obtaining employment is exceptionally difficult, if not nearly impossible and many stop searching.

Such a dismal outlook is a key reason why, in keeping with Dr. King’s legacy and mission, the ACLU of Michigan is actively advocating for policies that eliminate discriminatory practices that severely hamper returning citizens from getting jobs or housing.

While approximately one third of all Americans have a criminal record of some kind—men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all non-working men ages 25 to 54—the long established systemic racism entwined in the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black employment. Issues from racial discrimination in school discipline, racial profiling and over policing, discriminatory sentencing laws, and lack of reentry programs, all lead to African Americans, especially men with the highest arrest and incarceration rates.


  • Nationally, African Americans are arrested at a rate that is 2 to 3 times their proportion of the general population, and nearly half of African American men have a criminal record of some kind;
  • 1 in 17 white men are expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime; by contrast, this rate climbs to 1 in 3 for African American men; and 
  • an estimated 25 percent of African American adults have felony records compared to only 6 percent of non-African Americans.

For individuals with criminal records, especially a felony, obtaining employment is exceptionally difficult—if not nearly impossible—due to these discriminatory practices used by employers.

Returning citizens—an individual who is returning to the community from a period of incarceration—are released jobless, sometimes even homeless, yet are required to find work and housing as a part of the terms of their release. However, despite even the best job training, educational opportunities, and any other rehabilitative services the corrections system may offer, returning citizens, specifically minorities are blocked by a systemic discrimination in the form of criminal record exclusion bands in both hiring; practices and occupational licensing.

Nearly 90% of employers conduct a criminal record background check of an applicant as part of their hiring process. Many of these businesses also maintain strict policies and practices that have blanket exclusions against hiring people with criminal records regardless of how much time has passed since the conviction or relation of the crime.

In Michigan, many prisoners receive vocational education and training while incarcerated to create opportunities for employment upon release, but many of these jobs require an occupational license for lawful practice. There are hundreds of occupational licensing restrictions in Michigan on criminal records, all of which have blanket exclusion on felony convictions.

Jobs such as cosmetologists, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, construction workers, and fire alarm technicians automatically deny any individual with a felony record the required occupational license, regardless of the type or age of conviction, an individual’s rehabilitation, or employment history. Because of the well-recognized racial disparities of the criminal justice system, these policies and practices have a disproportionate affect on people of color, and harm black labor.

Policies that automatically exclude people with criminal records from obtaining employment or licensing are discriminatory because they are based on a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color. These policies directly contribute to higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and crime. These policies also enable a culture that rejects people before they can be judged on their merits, creating a social and economic prison—and we need to restructure our regulations to fix it.

What should the regulations do? States and local municipalities should first implement policies that remove blanket exclusion of felonies. Ultimately, they should follow the recommendations outlined by the EEOC. They should outline a process for licensing boards and employers to conduct individualized assessments, considering only an established narrowly tailored list of related convictions, as well as any evidence of rehabilitation.

New policies surrounding the use of criminal records in employment and occupational licensing not only benefit the people of our community; it benefits employers and the government. Criminal record exclusions and barriers force a significant number of people to remain unemployed or underemployed despite their training and willingness to work. Many others continue to work unlicensed and subsequently, unregulated. Without a license, people are paid under the table, and without filing taxes at a detriment only to the community and the State as a whole. 

Additionally, employers are given a wider pool of qualified applicants to choose from. Studies have shown that returning citizens who are committed to changing their lives and are given a fair chance at employment are found to be some of the hardest working and most reliable employees with the longevity at an employer. Employers who hire returning citizens within one year of their conviction or release are eligible for receiving thousands of dollars per person in federal tax credits. By increasing the pool of licensed or accredited workers, the State may increases its tax pool by thousands of jobs adding revenue.

Just as importantly, such progressive policies add hope to the lives of men and women who’ve paid their debts to society and desperately need a second chance.