Handcuffs to Hardhats: UP Program Trains Drug Offenders for Living Wage Jobs

An Escanaba partnership between trade unions and the county prosecutor’s office seeks to combat mass incarceration by diverting drug offenders into union apprenticeship programs.

The program, called Handcuffs to Hardhats, plans to launch its first construction project in August. Two candidates are under review for the program, which will allow them to “earn as they learn” during their apprenticeship and emerge as fully-fledged journeymen in their chosen field – ironworker, laborer, or electrician.

“If we can give an opportunity not just for a job but a career in construction, it might be the motivation it takes to get their lives turned around,” said Lucas Bradshaw, an Iron Workers Local 8 journeyman and chairperson of the Delta County Democrats.

The initiative is a long time coming. It grew out of brainstorming sessions between current Delta County Prosecutor Phil Strom and former prosecutor Steve Parks, now the 94th District Court judge, back in 2011 as they saw the ravages of the opioid epidemic play out in their courtroom.

While attracting headlines nationally, the opioid crisis – spurred by overprescribed opioid painkillers that have pushed addicts to heroin – has hit lower-income rural areas particularly hard, especially in the Upper Peninsula, where alcohol and drug problems are already widespread.

“It’s taken over our criminal justice system,” Strom said. “It’s probably the most frequent criminal charge we’re dealing with and it’s affecting our [whole] population because there’s no socioeconomic boundaries.”

Faced with an overcrowded jail and state budgets slashed to the bone, Strom and Parks began discussing options for restorative justice, including the formation of special drug courts focused on treatment and rehabilitation.

Those courts are now a reality for Delta County, currently overseeing 15 to 20 cases.

“‘Lock ’em up, let ’em out, lock ’em up’ isn’t doing them any good – not for the community or the offender,” Strom said. “[It was] wasting taxpayer dollars because the system that was in place was not efficient and unhelpful.”

The initiative feeds from the drug courts, targeting people who are at least 90 days sober, interested in joining the building trades, and meet other job-specific criteria like holding a driver’s license.

Backed by the UP Regional Labor Federation and the Michigan Building and Construction Trade Council, it’s an example of how progressive criminal justice reforms can be won locally amid a backdrop of national far-right policymaking, Bradshaw said.

“It all starts at who we elect to lead law enforcement at local levels in our community,” Bradshaw said. “We can get out and organize at the local level and elect people who have a progressive vision of not only just building bigger jails, but starting programs that stop the cycle.”

But the initiative is not without its complications. The program’s first construction project? Building the new Delta County jail.

The irony is not lost on Strom, who said jail overcrowding and safety compliance issues led to a 2016 ballot measure to build a new facility in Escanaba.

Community activists worked to tie the new jail to progressive priorities like increased treatment and work-training programs, Bradshaw said.

“What better opportunity than to put people in jail, to have them build the new jail?” Bradshaw said.

Strom stressed that the purpose of the new jail is not to “lock more people up” but to provide treatment services and a safer environment for inmates and corrections officers.

It’s just one more reminder of the difficulties – and contradictions – of unlocking criminal justice reform in a society built on throwing away the key.

By Matthew Kovac

Matthew Kovac

Matthew Kovac