About 19 million Americans are burdened with a felony record, yet fewer than half of those transgressions were serious enough to require an actual prison sentence. Those convicted of felonies — and the millions more with misdemeanors — face lifelong barriers to employment and labor mobility, key factors in driving long-term economic growth.
An improved criminal justice environment fosters prosperity and builds a society of stronger workers and consumers. For too long, the business community has had only a peripheral role in debates about how to reform our criminal justice system, but Corporate America should recognize that it has a strong business interest in the outcomes and must take a greater leadership role. It must embrace second chance hiring, the employment of people with criminal records.
This is also critical if we are to overcome the demographic hurdles our labor market faces as Baby Boomers retire and the influx of Millennials slows. We must bring those who have been marginalized back into the fold of gainful employment.
The ugly truth of our criminal justice system is that one in three Black men in the United States has a felony record, putting them at a severe disadvantage.
Admirable commitments by companies to be more inclusive in hiring must be coupled with an intentional process for second chance hiring. My research has shown that “disposable employee” labor, in which the employer is trying to get the cheapest effective wage possible through minimum wage jobs that are subsidized by temporary tax credits (Work Opportunity Tax Credits), will not work because they do not adequately distinguish who is ready for reemployment nor do they make the sufficient investment to support rehabilitation. Neither will hiring models that fail to account for the challenges of so many with records: trauma, lack of mentorship and limited access to housing and transportation.
Done right, second chance hiring that offers the needed training and support repays the required investment with loyal, productive and profitable employees (the upfront costs can even effectively be offset by tax credits). Without such an approach, our labor force cannot hope to reflect the diversity of our population.
Business can lead on criminal justice reform
Employment is foundational to rehabilitation for the millions of Americans with records and the more than 600,000 who exit prisons each year. When employers understand that people caught up in the criminal justice system are their future workforce, we will surely be able to put better policies in place to help.
Even those businesses such as schools, defense contractors and financial institutions that have regulatory constraints on who they can hire have important roles to play. They can support education, reentry and workforce development nonprofits or advocate for policies that improve employment outcomes. Ultimately, businesses should help lead because they can — and they must if we are to live up to the American aspiration to be a land of opportunity for all.
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