Second chance hiring benefits everyone, not just former convicts
The goal behind incarceration, at least in theory, is rehabilitation. A person who has committed a crime serves a sentence, pays a “debt to society,” and rejoins, ready to be a productive member of the group. That’s hardly the way the process typically plays out.
“There are both hard and soft challenges,” Jeff Korzenik, author of Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community, told BOSS. “The hard challenges generally fit into what are called collateral consequences. These are punishment beyond punishment. Even when you have fulfilled your sentence, you still have barriers.”
There are restrictions on the types of work ex-convicts can get (via occupational license requirements), barriers to where they can live and the type of assistance they can receive. There are more than 40,000 regulatory collateral consequences at the state level across the U.S. Outside of legal framework, a criminal record often attaches itself to people like a scarlet letter.
“In many ways the bigger barriers are the soft barriers,” he said. “These revolve around the stigma. Employers simply don’t want to hire people with criminal records in many cases. Even if they are complying with the letter of the law, with fairness, review, and consideration, people with records become either completely excluded or the employee of last resort.”
As Korzenik, also the chief investment strategist for one of the country’s largest commercial banks, points out, this stigma hurts not only the formerly incarcerated people trying to reintegrate into society, but the rest of society too.
The System Has Failed
More than 76% of people released from state prisons are rearrested within five years, a watershed Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found. “That gives you an idea of the magnitude of the failure,” Korzenik said. Your first instinct might be to place the blame for that failure on the individuals. That misses the point. Clearly, the system isn’t living up to the ideals of successfully reintegrating prisoners into society.
Prison Policy Initiative analysis shows 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and the unemployment rate in the first year after release can be north of 50%, Korzenik said. “It’s a tremendous waste of talent. But it also leads to … if you don’t give people the opportunity to rebuild their lives legally, then they tend to do so illegally.”
The three areas of crime that account for the most prisoners in the U.S. are violent offenses — often connected to the drug trade — property crime, and drug-related offenses — overwhelmingly, dealing.
Recreational drug use, while not a leading cause of imprisonment directly, can often lead to misdemeanor charges and convictions. “Because of the way the whole system is set up, misdemeanors can start interfering with employment and disrupting peoples’ lives, which tends to lead to people getting involved in things that create felony charges,” Korzenik said.
The system as designed fails to take into consideration the importance of keeping people employed and working toward a better life. The binary of being soft on crime or tough on crime is wrong, Korzenik said, borrowing a phrase from Stand Together Foundation CEO Brian Hooks.
“We should be pro-public safety and pro-people having opportunities,” Korzenik said. “Those are not mutually exclusive, in fact they go hand-in-hand.”
A lot of legislation passed in the name of public safety ends up undermining public safety by making it harder for people to be gainfully employed, he said. Second chance hiring can accomplish both goals.
Progress Being Made
From a legal standpoint and a private sector standpoint, Korzenik thinks strides are being made to make second chance hiring a larger part of the employment process. One area is the removal or restriction of cash bail in some states. People arrested for relatively minor misdemeanor offenses often aren’t able to post bail.
“What happens is people become unemployed not because they’ve committed some heinous crime, but because they are incarcerated before they’re declared guilty and aren’t able to work,” he said.
On the federal level, there’s the First Step Act, which focuses on the potential for earlier release with credit for prisoners looking to improve their lives and provides resources for them to be better prepared to enter the workforce by the time they get out. At the state level, simple measures such as beginning the process for restoring driver’s licenses and other documentation before prisoners are released makes it more likely they secure employment soon after.
That’s a good thing because workers are needed.
“This talent shortage became readily apparent in 2018-19 when there were red-hot labor markets,” Korzenik said. “It’s already becoming apparent again. We have a demographic shortage in our labor force. Roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers a day retire. The Millennial generation, which is a great advantage for the U.S. economy is already all in. We’ve had declining birth rates since 1990. We’re running out of labor.”
On the employer side, he cited Dave’s Killer Bread as an example of a company succeeding by not only embracing second chance hiring but making that fact a part of its public messaging. Each bag urges the buyer to “stand behind second chances.”
The Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation is also part of the Second Chance Business Coalition, co-chaired by Jamie Dimon and Craig Arnold, respectively the chairs and CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and Eaton.
“Unlike some past efforts, which I think have been performative, this actually has very important nonprofit partners like SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management),” Korzenik said. “It’s kind of a who’s who of corporate America. It includes Kroger, which has nearly half a million employees in the U.S.
“This is very real and very important because of the conviction of the leadership of this group, the fact that it includes working models of second chance hiring, and the fact that their goals are very focused on establishing the right process and they have the right nonprofit partners. I think it’s potentially transformational for corporate America.”
Good for Everyone
International prisoner statistics tend not to include certain groups who have not been convicted of crimes in the judicial system but are essentially not free, such as hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs and Tibetans in work camps in China. Still, at more than 2 million people in 2019 — the figure is currently lower because of COVID-related early releases — the U.S. has about a quarter of the world’s judicially incarcerated prisoners. However you count it, it’s “shameful for a developed country and the ostensible leader of the free world. We should do better,” Korzenik said.
So if your business is not open to second chance hiring, you’re almost certainly missing out on talent. But how can a business determine who’s ready to successfully enter or re-enter the workforce?
The elements of a successful second chance hire are an educated employer who understands it’s an investment and good partners with a proven selection process such as re-entry nonprofits and specialized staffing agencies.
“It seems counterintuitive with this population, but you’re essentially hiring on character,” Korzenik said. “People who make a big mistake in life and fall down and aren’t who they want to be … people of character they come back and work extra hard to live up to their aspirations. That is true of this population too.”
The right partners have the expertise to identify who is likely to thrive in a professional environment. Another element is closing the gaps potential hires might have to overcome, lives lived in extreme poverty or without mentorship. The onus of solving these problems is not necessarily on the employer, but they should recognize that they exist and have ways of referring hires to external resources or bringing those partners in. Companies that make the investment in second chance hiring find it’s well worth it.
“It’s an act of innovation and mind-broadening, for lack of a better term, that seems to have very positive aspects for other areas of their business,” he said.
Companies that help solve social problems get positive feedback from consumers and from younger employees who want an employer with a greater mission than simply delivering returns to shareholders. A five-year study of 500 second chance hires in the Johns Hopkins Hospital system revealed lower turnover rates and higher engagement rates compared to employees at-large and zero “problematic” terminations. University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist found that ex-felons granted a waiver to enlist in the military were 32% more likely to rise to the rank of sergeant than other enlistees. And while they were more likely to be discharged for committing an offense in the military system, it was at a rate of 6.6% compared to 5% of other enlistees.
“Companies that take this on become more innovative in other ways as well,” Korzenik said. “It becomes an attribute of really good companies.”