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Thinking Outside the Box - Employers that have banned the felony box on job applications see workforce rewards.

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) In 2014, 10,000 prisoners were paroled in Michigan, and approximately 900 of them returned to Kent County to rebuild their lives.

Upon trying to re-establish themselves in their communities, one of the first hurdles facing former prisoners — who are referred to as “returning citizens” by those doing work in the area of prisoner re-entry — is the felony box on job applications.

For many employers, a checkmark in that box immediately disqualifies a job candidate, regardless of the details of their crime. That leaves returning citizens in the precarious position of not being able to find a job or getting stuck in entry-level positions that often don’t provide a livable wage —and that, in turn, can lead to recidivism.

National studies have found approximately two-thirds of formerly incarcerated persons are re-arrested within three years of release and almost half are re-incarcerated. In Michigan, the current recidivism rate is 30 percent, the lowest the state has ever seen.

According to Jacob Maas, CEO for Area Community Services Employment & Training Council, housing and employment are the biggest factors in the likelihood of recidivism.

“You need to have both in order to reduce recidivism,” Maas said.

The correlation between employment and decreased recidivism is so strong, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken an active role in promoting re-entry programs as a crime prevention measure.

This year, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared the last week of April re-entry week across the country. In response, Patrick Miles, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, participated in several prisoner re-entry events that week. Miles also is championing an Employer Summit this week, 9-11 a.m., Thursday, May 26, at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, 111 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids.

The summit is intended to raise awareness among employers about the advantages of hiring returning citizens and programs they can take advantage of to decrease any risks regarding hiring someone with a criminal record.

A job fair focused on returning citizens will be held in the fall as a follow-up to the Employer Summit.

“If we take seriously our charge to reduce crime in the Western District of Michigan, we must focus on this population of returning residents and work with other stakeholders to address challenges they face, to help them become positive, law-abiding members of their communities,” Miles said. “Ultimately, by increasing the success of formerly incarcerated individuals, we reduce crime and improve the safety and wellbeing of all of our communities’ residents.”

Two of the companies participating in the Employer Summit — Butterball Farms and Cascade Engineering — are longtime proponents of hiring returning citizens. Both have been hiring returning citizens for nearly two decades.

Keith Maki, director of marketing at Cascade Engineering, said his company began hiring returning citizens as a result of its successful Welfare to Career program.

“The purpose of the Welfare to Career program was that Fred Keller, our founder and company chair, felt there were underserved employment communities, of which those on welfare were a big one,” Maki said.

“We saw that program become more and more successful. Our retention was below 30 percent when we first started; now it’s 98 percent or better. People have come here and worked their way off of welfare programs and are now fully employed and have a career here. That same thought process was behind our initial look at whether it would be a good thing to look at previously incarcerated individuals and provide a second chance for them.”