by Daniel A. Rosen |
Everywhere you look, signs say: “Now Hiring” and “Apply Within.” News reports air nightly about businesses that can’t reopen because they’re understaffed. Teenagers and college kids are getting good jobs that they’d normally never be considered for. But if you’ve got a felony record, that sign out front often says: “No, Not You.”
Every year, 650,000 returning citizens walk out of prison needing employment. Even more were released this past year, as corrections agencies scrambled to reduce the spread of Covid. Studies show that half these returnees will be unemployed a year later; a third of them will still be jobless after two years. Two-thirds of them will be back behind bars after year three. That’s a failure rate we shouldn’t accept as inevitable any longer.
Over 11 million arrestees will also be booked and jailed this year, some for a day or two, some for months or even years. Many of them will lose their job – along with homes, vehicles, and child custody – while awaiting bond, a plea deal, or a trial. Anyone released on probation after time in jail or prison is required to maintain full-time employment, subject to on-site verification from probation officials.
Studies show that unemployment (along with housing challenges) is a key predictor of recidivism. Despite knowing this, a steady job is often hard to come by for those walking out of prison. Endless well-intentioned government and non-profit agencies want to help by offering “referrals” to returning citizens, but a real no-kidding position and a paycheck – a legitimate one that will meet with the approval of corrections and probation offices – are always in short supply. Good intentions don’t keep parolees from coming back to prison.
The funny thing is, there are a lot of really talented, resourceful, creative, intelligent people in prison. Many of them could turn their hustle into legitimate real-world profit, given the chance. In prison, you often have to find novel solutions to little problems that crop up every day, under pretty austere circumstances; it’s a marketable skill but may not translate well to a résumé. Many inmates even develop job experience inside that’s useful in the real world: landscaping, auto repair and maintenance, kitchen work, light industry, and more. They still have a hard time finding a stable gig, even when they’re well-qualified.
You may read this and ask: “Wasn’t ‘the box’ that asked about criminal history on job applications banned a long time ago?” Several states have in fact banned employers from discrimination against felons at the initial application stage. But anyone with a record will tell you that most employers eventually ask the question, if you make it to an interview. If you lie, you can be terminated later. If you tell the truth, companies are within their rights to usher you out the door at that point. And if it doesn’t come up and you manage to get the job, you risk being fired when your employer gets around to running a background check.
Hiring returned citizens doesn’t have to be overly risky, either. The Federal Bonding Program (FBP) sponsored by the US Labor Department offers employers “fidelity bonds” up to $20,000 for 6 months, just for hiring felons. Washington offers more incentives: the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a $2,400 annual tax credit for up to 2 years, if employers hire felons within one year of release from prison. Hiring felons can actually put money in employers’ pockets.
So if you’re a hiring manager, a small business owner, a CEO or COO, and you find yourself needing help, consider purposefully hiring returned citizens. Put it in your job listing: “We hire the formerly incarcerated,” so they know they’re welcome at your business. Reach out to your local probation office and make it known that you’re part of the solution.
By doing this, you’ll be putting tax credits in your pocket, be bonded against any losses that result – and most importantly, you’ll be demonstrably helping to rebuild your community in tangible ways. These folks are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters, just like you and your family.
The dignity and stability of a good job, and the chance to rebuild their lives, shouldn’t be out of reach. It’s time we saw hiring returned citizens as something that’s in everyone’s best interest, and recognized those who do so as front-line combatants against the shameful recidivism rate that’s flourished for far too long.
I don’t normally ask this sort of thing, but:
Please send this to any small business owner, CEO, or hiring manager you know. Post it on LinkedIn or anywhere else someone in a position to hire others might see it.