WIRED innovation offers education for a second chance

March 1, 2009
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Think it’s hard to get a job? Imagine having a criminal record.

“Obviously, right now it’s a difficult time for anybody to find employment, but for folks with criminal records it’s extremely difficult,” said Miriam Aukerman, attorney and project director for the Reentry Law Project at Legal Aid.

She said that keeping those with a criminal record employed also reduces the chances they will repeat a crime.

“It’s a problem for those individuals, but it’s also a problem for us as a community because we know that the recidivism rates are very closely related to employment.”

The Reentry Law Project at Legal Aid, along with the Reentry Employment Resource Center, leads the Second Chance Job Project, one of the innovations that came as a result of the three-year $15 million WIRED West Michigan grant. The 2005 grant’s purpose was to help overcome work force, educational and economic challenges through funding various regional initiatives.

The Second Chance Job Project was added to the WIRED portfolio in the summer of 2008 and held its first employer event, hosted by Rockford Construction, on Jan. 27.

Aukerman shed some light on the significant benefits for employers who hire people with criminal records:

“There’s a (typically $2,400) tax credit employers can get for hiring. There’s a federal bonding program that allows employers to get free federal bonding for employees with criminal records, and then there’s a bunch of other legal issues that a lot of employers just don’t know,” she said.

No-felony policies are actually illegal in most cases, and criminal records are sometimes tremendously inaccurate.

“A lot of employers don’t know about the opportunities that exist and they also don’t know what their responsibilities are under the law.”

Legal Aid provides information to employers about the project, employment policies, and more. It also provides representation to employees with a criminal record who need it.

Aukerman rattled off a few examples of employees being fired over crimes they did not commit due to inaccurate criminal records. The basis for searching for criminal records is name and year of birth, so for people who have common names, this can be a problem — whether they have an actual criminal record or not.

She added that for some jobs, having a criminal record shouldn’t be a factor.

“For a lot of jobs, having a criminal record shouldn’t be a barrier for that kind of employment,” she said.

She stressed that employers can protect themselves from lawsuits by steering clear of blanket felony policies and focusing on individual situations. Within her experiences, she stressed, those with a criminal record are often very eager and willing to work and turn out to be very solid employees.

“This is often a group that is tremendously motivated,” she said. “They’ve seen what the alternatives are and they’re not pretty. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I just want someone to give me a chance to work.’ It’s pretty demoralizing when they aren’t given that chance, but for those who are, they are very dedicated and grateful for that opportunity.”

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