Lansing Residents Convicted of a Felony Within Last 20 Years Can Now Serve on City Boards
By Jason Laplow
Nov. 10, 2022
cover photo from Wikimedia Commons
Following Tuesday’s midterm election, Lansing residents who have been convicted of a felony within the last 20 years are now eligible to serve on the city’s boards as a result of an amendment to the City Charter which received over 20,000 “Yes” votes by Lansing voters, good for 55% of those who cast their ballot on the issue.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, a Democrat, endorsed the amendment through an op-ed published in the Lansing State Journal on Oct. 10. In the article, he shared a personal anecdote which explained the reasoning behind campaigning for the amendment.
“This issue came to light earlier this year when a very involved small business owner and I were talking about his contributions to our community,” Schor wrote. “When I asked him to serve as a member of a city board, he was excited at the opportunity to give back. However, upon checking the qualifications, we both learned he was ineligible for consideration.”
Lansing has over two dozen boards that residents can volunteer to serve on, according to the city’s website, which also states that “individuals with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences representing the demographics of Lansing are encouraged to apply.” The new amendment will expand the diversity even further as part of an ongoing movement to expand the rights of formerly convicted felons, according to Merry Morash, a professor in the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice.
“For the last 10 or 20, maybe 10 or 15 years, there's been a real shift in understanding that punitive approaches, removing people from opportunities are not particularly a good idea,” Morash said. “They probably make things worse for people because they don’t feel invested in the community and part of the community.”
The City Charter’s amendment is the newest in a line of changes nationwide made in recent years, as criminal justice reform has taken hold of many local governments similar to that of Lansing, but also at the state and national level.
“There's been a tremendous amount of reform at the state level,” Morash said. “In the Department of Corrections - total emphasis on rehabilitation, job training, things like that.”
Morash explained that the amendment has very few downsides to Lansing residents. Noah Hintz, a journalism student at MSU who lives in Downtown Lansing, agrees.
“This country in general kind of treats people with criminal records pretty harshly,” Hintz said. “I mean, obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but I do like the idea of making amends and getting second chances. It’s nice to see that the city is taking initiative on stuff like this.”
Despite that it may seem as though the amendment was a surefire pass, there were still over 16,000 ballots across the city that were marked with a “No” vote on Tuesday, about 44% of those who voted on the issue. Those in opposition likely still hold a stigma against people who have been convicted of a felony, says Kayla Hoskins, a doctoral candidate in the MSU School of Criminal Justice.
“I think voters who might lean towards voting against such reform, as this specific case in Lansing, may, you know, have heard more support or more narratives around favoring those tough on crime policies,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins explained that there is a “broad philosophical debate” currently taking place around the use of punitive measures to deter crime versus the use of rehabilitate measures which that seek to reintegrate those who have committed a crime into society - giving them a second chance on at life, so to speak. While much of the reform that has made its way to becoming law has involved voting rights, the Lansing amendment certainly falls under the same category.
In Michigan, there are nearly seven incarcerated black individuals to every one white individual, per The Sentencing Project. Naturally, then, restricting the rights of former felons is restricting the rights of blacks much more than it is those of whites.
“We’re seeing the collateral consequences of mass incarceration, and sentences, sentencing disparities, which disproportionately impact and disenfranchised people of color, in Michigan, especially, and more broadly, black Americans,” Hoskins said. “That disenfranchisement in those collateral consequences extend beyond, you know, serving their term of supervision or sentence, in prison or in jail, and so that can really lead to long- term consequences.”
Both Morash and Hoskins gave examples of someone who might benefit from the newly installed amendment and were strikingly similar. They both described someone who may have committed a crime when they were young - say, with possessing and using drugs – but 20 years later have done their time and are completely different people, only wanting to shed the reminders of their past. They both agreed that if this person wants to do something as civic as volunteering on a local board, they probably want good for their community and nothing else.
Despite the door now being taped wide open, Hoskins said that there are still barriers ahead for people with felonies looking to secure a spot in local government.
“I imagine the people with felonies are still going to have a hurdle in voters voting for them to serve in the first place, so there’s going to be barriers still, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”