The Carceral State Project opposes all policies that create barriers and cause harm to people with criminal records, including the discriminatory policies currently in operation at the University of Michigan, on both ethical and empirical grounds. On January 29, 2019, U-M announced SPG 601.38: “Required Disclosure of Felony Charges and/or Felony Convictions.” This policy, which applies to current employees, built on the existing criminal background screening that U-M conducts on all prospective faculty, staff, and graduate student employees (SPG 201.95). U-M also inquires about criminal records, including misdemeanors and in some cases juvenile records, in the admissions process for undergraduate and graduate students.
On February 12, 2019, the Carceral State Project released an Open Letter to the University of Michigan calling for the repeal of all of these policies immediately. The Open Letter (full version here) received 1,872 signatories during the next few weeks, in addition to those of the six steering committee members who drafted it (Amanda Alexander, Nora Krinitsky, Matthew Lassiter, Ashley Lucas, Ruby Tapia, Heather Ann Thompson). The preamble to the Open Letter states:
Taken together, these policies promote over-criminalization rather than public safety, reinforce the racial and economic inequalities in the criminal justice system and on our campus, and have other devastating collateral consequences. The role of the University should be to offer education and employment rather than act as an extension of the carceral state.
The Carceral State Project at the University of Michigan and its undersigned supporters call on the University administration to rescind SPG 601.38 immediately. We also call on the University to join the ever-growing number of public and private universities, as well as public and private employers, that have repealed policies that require disclosure of criminal records and pending charges during the admissions and employment application processes and have rejected criminal background checks of employees and students, except to the extent mandated by federal and state law.
The Open Letter is a product of academic research as well as an expression of solidarity with impacted populations and their advocates. The full version cites copious scholarship to support the Carceral State Project’s position that the University of Michigan’s policies actively discriminate and do not promote public safety. Highlights include:
- The preponderance of academic research rejects the presumption that criminal background checks and disclosure policies promote public safety.
- Overwhelming evidence demonstrates the harm that these policies cause to marginalized groups and impacted people.
- The existence of these policies discourages many qualified applicants from seeking employment or admission, which punctures U-M’s claim that its procedures are non-discriminatory.
- It is not possible for the University to implement a discretionary system of risk assessment without reproducing and enhancing the discriminatory aspects of the broader system of criminal justice in the United States, including policies that exacerbate racial/economic inequality and the criminalization of marginalized communities.
- Criminal record disclosure policies and background checks, therefore, actively subvert the University’s commitment to nondiscrimination and equal opportunity.
- U-M developed and maintains these policies without a transparent process and without adequate consultation with campus and community constituencies.
Open Letter: Updated Requests
On April 25, 2019, the steering committee of the Carceral State Project met with U-M President Mark Schlissel and other administration officials to discuss the Open Letter and the ongoing campaign demanding repeal of these policies being led by students and community organizations. The Carceral State Project presented President Schlissel with a list of Updated Requests to the University of Michigan Regarding Felony Disclosure and Related Policies. The highlights (full document at link) include:
- We request that the University affirmatively justify, to the university community and the broader public, its decision to continue these policies despite the preponderance of research revealing that they do not “promote safety and security” but do create greater disparities and social harm. A leading research institution should enact policies supported by rather than contradicted by the best available academic research.
- We implore the University administration to revise the language utilized to explain these policies to the public. [The administration] has responded to concerns by stating that “history of a felony conviction does not automatically prevent an applicant from working at the university, nor would it necessarily result in a current employee losing their job.” This language is exclusionary and works to deter applications from individuals who have encountered the criminal justice system, as research cited in the Open Letter makes clear.
- The University should publicly state that individuals with criminal records are presumed to be potentially valuable assets to our community and that their applications are welcomed and encouraged. Given the massive racial and economic inequalities in the criminal justice system, anything less subverts our stated DEI mission.
- The University has belatedly acknowledged the racial and economic inequalities in the criminal justice system and pledged that its risk assessment process is carefully designed with this in mind. In response to criticism from the American Friends Service Committee [note: from Natalie Holbrook of the Michigan chapter], [the university spokesperson] wrote: “We share the worry expressed by your organization and many other advocates about disproportionate impacts on underrepresented minorities who are sometimes treated unfairly by the legal system.” The Open Letter, citing the overwhelming consensus among academic experts, emphasizes that “it is not possible for the University to implement a discretionary system of risk assessment without reproducing and enhancing the discriminatory aspects of the broader system of criminal justice in the United States.”
- We request that the University, in good faith, make the working of the processes of its internal review and risk assessment fully transparent, while protecting individual privacy. We also request that the University voluntarily disclose the aggregate annual data (race, gender, total numbers per year, etc.) for 1) all cases in admissions and employment that are flagged for further investigation and 2) all cases that result in decisions to withhold admission or employment.
Documenting the Impact of U-M’s Criminal Records Policies
The Open Letter generated substantial discussion on campus and in the broader community, including coverage in the Michigan Daily (here and here), MLive (here), the University Record (here), and WDET’s Detroit Today (here). On February 13, the day after the release of the Open Letter, the Carceral State Project hosted a town forum about the U-M policies, held immediately after its symposium panel on Control and the Carceral State. Many directly impacted people at the town forum spoke off the record when describing their fear on campus and their sense that the University of Michigan does not welcome them.
The town hall and preceding panel included the following comments by community activists, impacted people, and the faculty leaders of the Carceral State Project.
Natalie Holbrook (Michigan AFSC): “This school takes advantage of populations and community organizations on a regular basis for research. I think that it’s a problem. I think you cannot do both. You cannot have a policy like this, and you can’t continue to have these really restrictive admissions policies, and then rely on community organizations that work with people who are in prisons and who have felony convictions.”
Adam (formerly incarcerated individual): “I am fearful about this whole thing in a number of different respects. Even if I was to get admitted, at the end of the road, would I even be able to get employed? Because thus far, having graduated almost a year ago, I have not been able to get into my field.”
Joshua Hoe (host of Decarceration Nation podcast): “What is the purpose of this policy? It seems to me it’s a deterrent–to deter people who might be interested, who have a background, from coming into this in the first place and trying to get educated. I find that very troubling.” [Also read Josh Hoe’s blog post about U-M’s policies here].
Mary King (executive director, Michigan Center for Youth Justice): “There needs to be standards that the university sets and makes transparent and public, so that somebody knows whether they actually have a shot at getting a job or getting into the University of Michigan, rather than being this big, mysterious, scary process.”
Nora Krinitsky (Residential College/PCAP): “Surveillance and control have come to bear on our own university community. . . . [U-M’s policies] criminalize our communities” and operate as an an extension of the carceral state.
Matt Lassiter (Department of History): “The liberal administrators truly believe that they can create a nondiscriminatory process. They believe they can create a process that doesn’t reproduce the bias outside the university. That is impossible. Everything we teach in history shows that you cannot create a nonbiased process and impose it on a biased society.”
Ashley Lucas (Residential College/Theater and Drama): People with criminal records should be “given opportunities to flourish to the greatest extent possible,” not punished further by the university and employers.
Firsthand Accounts from the CSP Symposium Series
Aaron Suganuma, a formerly incarcerated person and former director of A Brighter Way, addresses the stigma and exclusionary aspects of criminal background checks at the “Community and the Carceral State” symposium panel (March 13, 2019).
Aaron also discusses the specific deterrence of U-M’s admissions policies when he sought a degree after returning home.
Justin Gordon, an alumnus of the University of Michigan, describes his experience of criminalization on campus, followed by arrest and incarceration, for a misunderstanding when he was not carrying his student ID.
The National Football League rescinded a job offer to Justin after discovering his criminal record, despite his University of Michigan degree and letters of recommendation from his professors.