Criminal justice reform is needed to stop wasting lives, wasting money and locking up an unconscionable number of people of color. As Treasurer of Oakland County, tackling the problem starts with our Returning Citizens Entrepreneur Training Center, that helps citizens “returning” to their communities after incarceration start a small business and lead happy and productive lives, without going back to prison.
The statistics are irrefutable: Michigan taxpayers pay $36,106 each year to incarcerate people, with nearly half going back to prison. Contrasting incarceration with a drug treatment court, that addresses the substance abuse and mental health issues often driving criminal behavior, costs about $3,800 per year and has success rates as high as 90%. Reform is needed, as are more supports in the community for returning citizens to boost their success.
Our office is visited by many people with the common thread of facing a financial challenge, and sometimes the fact that people are “returning citizens,” or that they have served time in prison and are now returning to their community, is the cause of their money woes given the discrimination they face in their efforts to live a better life.
That’s why we worked with Michigan Liberation to create the Returning Citizens Entrepreneur Training Center in our office, which provides one-on-one entrepreneurial coaching and financial counseling to returning citizens. This is part of our broader countywide effort to financially empower all of our residents. We’re so excited to have already played a role in the success of some of aspiring entrepreneurs, including:
- “Shelly” is a returning citizen who spent the last 30 years in and out of prison. Shelly has now returned to her community having paid her debt to society, and has chosen to provide for herself by following the entrepreneurial path. When she connected with our Center, our counselor got to know Shelly and to understand her aspirations. Working together, they strengthened Shelly’s personal financial situation, while also refining her business model and helping her land her first long-term contract for corporate motivational speaking.
- “Rebecca” is also a returning citizen. Unable to find steady employment, she began cleaning homes, collecting just enough cash to get by. Rebecca, naturally an outgoing person motivated to meet new people, reached out for help growing her business into a promising startup. Our team first assisted Rebecca in establishing sound business practices, opening bank accounts, and rebuilding her personal credit. We then advised Rebecca on marketing and pricing, which helped her land a large commercial office cleaning contract, and she is now hiring employees. Rebecca has grown into her role as entrepreneur and job-creator thanks to her extraordinary resilience, intelligence and drive, as well as the compassion and professionalism of our team.
Reda Nafso, a business counselor with the Center, says, “We give returning citizens hope and an opportunity to become self-sufficient.” Shelly says of her life after prison: “There’s a stigma. If you’ve been there for any amount of years, you walk out like it’s a label on your forehead because the world is such a foreign place. You’re not used to the social and professional environments. I have a dream of what my success looks like. The County Treasurer legitimized my notion that I deserve a better life. I feel like I am being heard. It’s the first time in my life that I can pay my own bills.”
Good government doesn’t wait for things to happen, it anticipates what’s around the corner and builds out a strategy to make sure everyone is ready for anything. With a steady flow of citizens returning to Oakland County, we started the Returning Citizens Entrepreneur Training Center to make sure that a support is in place that can increase returning citizens’ chances for success, while making our county a more safe and prosperous place.
Andy Meisner is the Treasurer of Oakland County and former Vice Chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee in the Legislature. He can be reached at 248-858-0624 or firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about the Returning Citizens Entrepreneur Training Center or any other services offered by his office.