Can Hiring Former Prisoners Be Rewarding?

Hiring Former Prisoners

Gloria Hulsey and Yoshio Williams are former inmates who found jobs through a Tarrant County, Texas, Workforce Solutions program.

Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of American businesses have one or more employees with a criminal record.

“Around 70 million Americans have some type of record, but most are either old records or fairly minor ones,” says Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project in Oakland, California. “Having a record doesn’t necessarily translate into being a bad worker or being untrustworthy. It shows you made a mistake at some point in your life.”

However, that doesn’t mean employers are rushing to hire former prisoners, especially in a tight job market.

Most employers would say they believe in the idea of second chances and fresh starts, but when it comes down to it, they haven’t thought about what it means for their business. There is a lot of fear associated with it, and understandably so.

“Most employers would say they believe in the idea of second chances and fresh starts, but when it comes down to it, they haven’t thought about what it means for their business,” she says. “There is a lot of fear associated with it, and understandably so.”

No one questions the fact that the deck is heavily stacked against ex-offenders.

  • One in 12 adults was imprisoned at the local, state or federal level in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • In a survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 76 percent of former inmates say finding work after being released is difficult or nearly impossible.
  • As many as 60 percent of former prisoners are unemployed one year after their release.
  • An estimated 70 percent of prison inmates have low literacy, making it hard to search job ads, fill out job applications or write business letters.
  • Re-arrests are common within the first six months of release.

Not allowing this group of people to reach their full employment potential costs our economy $65 billion a year in economic output, says Jesse Wiese, director of community engagement for Prison Fellowship in Lansdowne, Virginia, and himself a former prisoner.

“About 12 million people circulate in and out of incarceration each year,” said Ron Krannich, president of Impact Publications in Manassas, Virginia., which publishes materials to help prisoners re-enter society. “The prison gives them $200 in gate money and says, `’Don’t come back.’

“When someone leaves prison, they need to find both housing and a job,” Krannich says. “If they don’t have a place to stay, they often are forced into transitional housing or homeless shelters. The simultaneous need to find a job becomes critical.”

Something to offer

With three times as many job seekers as job openings, why run the risk of hiring an ex-offender?

For one thing, the idea that men and women are leaving the gates of San Quentin and heading straight for the un? Not sure how this sentence follows the previous employment office is a misperception. Most offenders have been functioning in society for years, Rodriguez says.

Obviously, no one would hire a sex offender for a day care center or an embezzler to work in accounting. However, most criminal acts have little correlation to job duties. About 70 percent of offenses are for drug use or other nonviolent crime, Krannich says.

“The city of San Francisco has a policy that looks closely at which offenses may be a problem for certain positons,” Rodriguez says. “People’s records disqualify them only about 2 percent of the time.”

An intangible but real reason to hire former prisoners is to simply help someone move on with their life.

“Think about not having a job or what it’s like to lose a job and not be able to find one,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a hit on your worth and self-esteem, especially with how we think about work in our society. It’s essential to a sense of self-worth. A number of people with records are qualified and have a desire to work but have been turned down repeatedly. It can be devastating. Losing hope has negative consequences for individuals and society.”

Although that is true, businesses rightly believe they exist to generate profits, not provide charity.

“I am not saying that anyone deserves a job because of a criminal history,” Wiese says. “What I am saying is that a criminal history should not be an automatic disqualifier that the applicant cannot perform the tasks better than other applicants.”

What can ex-offenders bring to the table?

  • Financial benefits. Employers may be eligible for up to $9,000 in tax credits for hiring a formerly convicted employee who meets the criteria of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program.
  • Enthusiasm. Former prisoners are more aware than anyone how difficult it is to find a job. Experts say most of them appreciate an opportunity and are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up to prove themselves.
  • Practical skills. Many inmates leave prison with skills they have learned through training programs while incarcerated. These skills often are valued by construction or roofing businesses – what Krannich calls “hot, heavy work.”
  • Loyalty. “In many cases, employers with a history of hiring ex-offenders find them to be hard workers, loyal and appreciative of the opportunity,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to look at that big talent pool. There is a lot of good talent out there and a lot of damaged people.”
  • Acceptable risk. The “hazard rate” for a first-time arrestee for robbery after seven-and-a-half years is the same as someone who has never been convicted, according to research at Carnegie Mellon University. For someone arrested for aggravated assault, the risk to employers disappears after four years with no subsequent criminal activity.

“Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has become part of the American experience,” Wiese says. “This group of people IS our workforce. If we want to benefit from everyone’s maximum potential, we must stop perpetually punishing people who have paid their debt and allow them to give back at their highest potential.”

Looking beyond the box

The main thing ex-offenders seek is an opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than simply their criminal record. Bear in mind, however, that interviewing an ex-prisoner will not be like screening a college graduate on a career path.

“We cannot expect people to be warehoused in a prison facility for multiple years or decades with minimal or no employment opportunities to perform well in the workforce,” Wiese says. “Working to create a constructive prison culture — a community that upholds norms consistent with the norms outside of the prison context — is imperative to success.”

Maintaining objectivity is difficult but important.

“You may consider conducting blind reviews of candidates without their names,” Rodriguez says. “Determine which skills and qualifications are important to the position and take out extraneous information. Be sure they are the right fit.”

Those who have been through the criminal justice system should be evaluated by HR the same as any other qualified applicant, Wiese says.

“Once punishment is complete, we must begin to provide legitimate opportunities at a second chance,” he says. “Being continually pushed to the margins of society only increases the likelihood of recidivating and diminishes the value and dignity of millions of American citizens.”

One final hurdle is how coworkers will react to hiring a former felon. That concern often is a non-issue or even an opportunity to show leadership, Rodriguez says.

“If you hire a person and the offense is not related to the job, there is no reason to share that information with other employees,” Rodriguez says. “If you are dealing with someone coming straight from incarceration, there needs to be help and support. Send a message that believing in second chances is part of your company’s values. Most employees will be proud and supportive.”

After an employee is hired, perhaps the best thing a business can do is treat them exactly as they would any other employee.

“Evaluate them based on their ability to perform the tasks for the position,” Wiese says. “We are not looking for pity or a handout. We are looking for an opportunity to provide for ourselves, grow and succeed. Don’t treat us any differently than you would other candidates.”

Hiring an employee with a criminal past is a bold decision and perhaps not the correct one for every business. Companies that accept the risks, however, often find themselves in a win-win situation.

“Think about your corporate values, the qualities needed for a particular job and who can best fill it,” Rodriguez says. “If you can hire a person with a record, it will help your business, that person and the rest of society. It will have a ripple effect.”

Wiese agrees.

“At the end of the day, this is not so much about jobs as it is about how much our society is going to allow men and women who have made a mistake to reenter into the American experience,” he says. “Will we ever truly let people pay for their mistake? Or will we force them to perpetually pay for it for the rest of their lives, all the while being marginalized?

“I[/dc] know firsthand that there is great talent and potential in our prisons and in the millions of Americans who have been through the criminal justice system. By not allowing these 700,000 men and women released from American prisons each year the opportunity to pursue legitimate second chances, we are robbing ourselves of all that they have to offer.”

Alan Goforth
Benefits Prop