Louis Reed is the national organizer for #Cut50, a national initiative to reduce the prison population. He also was formerly incarcerated, and he knows the difficulty of getting a job following prison time.
“It was a very cumbersome process,” Reed said. “I would present well, and I would have a provisional offer, but the moment that my criminal history came back it was, ‘No; unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to hire you,’ which was deflating in and of itself.”
But a criminal act does not have to define a person for life. Many prisoners desire to be reintegrated into society with their families and be active members of their communities. In December 2018, lawmakers passed a new criminal justice reform law that will help the formerly incarcerated do that and more. The First Step Act will prepare people to leave prison job-ready with incentives to pursue classes that will help them succeed once outside custodial walls.
According to the First Step Act website: “The Bill will put the focus back on rehabilitation and finding ways to give people an opportunity to come home and succeed.”
Among other benefits, the First Step Act will implement classes within the criminal justice system to willing prisoners who wish to leave with the skills necessary to work for companies upon release. The bill will issue $375 million within the next five years to procure programming and classes for prisoners, enabling volunteers, nonprofits, faith-based groups and universities to provide help and job-focused courses to incarcerated individuals before leaving prison.
With this programming in place, the law is intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will commit another crime once released, reducing recidivism.
The First Step Act also could help companies that are looking to hire new talent. Ideally, the new law will help businesses struggling to fill positions in a job market where there are more jobs than applicants. In today’s pool of applicants, one-third have a criminal record, according to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Charles Koch Institute. The study also found that both employers and employees are willing to work with this unique group of candidates.
Johnny C. Taylor, SHRM’s CEO, said there are three reasons why recently released prisoners are good hires for companies: First, they will be quality hires for companies looking for focused talent. Second, they will stay longer with the companies that gave them a second chance at a working life. Third, it will be less expensive to hire from this group of applicants.
“Here is another pool of talent that performs at or better than people who don’t have a criminal history,” Taylor said. “That is automatically opening doors of more talent for organizations that are currently talent-constrained.”
Companies such as Delta Airlines and McDonald’s are already hiring people with criminal records through their inclusion strategy programs, but many employers hold biases toward hiring ex-felons. Taylor mentioned a few reasons why there may be pushback from some companies and businesses.
“There’s a perception by employees that this somehow will lead to a less safe work environment,” he said. “I call it the NIMBY, meaning the ‘not in my back yard’ phenomenon, where everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s a great idea to hire someone who’s formerly incarcerated, but I don’t want them sitting next to me, my daughter, my child, etc.,’ in the workplace because that means your work is less safe. Employees aren’t as interested when it hits home.”
In addition to the hesitation some employers have about hiring the previously incarcerated, day cares, schools and similar institutions have legal prohibitions that may prevent hiring from this group of people. There is also increased liability for bringing possible high-risk profiles into the workplace.
However, the First Step Act will exclude certain inmates from earning credits, such as undocumented prisoners and high-level offenders.
And Taylor believes the course offerings will continuously improve.
“These courses over time will get better — the key is for employers to inform this job training as opposed to people in the criminal justice system designing what they think employers want. That’s the most important thing,” he said. “It’s critical that whatever job training is designed, it be informed by employers’ needs. There are plenty of jobs that someone can be adequately educated to do when they are about to get out. The only thing that we at SHRM focus on is ensuring that this training is not theoretical training but is informed by industry.”
The nationwide survey conducted by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute took polls from employers, employees and HR professionals and found that about half of all working professionals are willing to work with people who have a criminal record. Additionally, more than 60 percent of HR professionals reported having already hired workers with a criminal record.
“If we look at people who are incarcerated as human beings, as brothers or sisters, as siblings, as people who are returned back to our community, and we don’t necessarily look at them as prisoners, we will increase our empathy for them, and we will be more prone to extend resources to them,” Reed said.
In late January, following passage of the First Step Act, SHRM took the next step by inviting the business world to sign a national pledge that will give qualified men and women recently released from prison more opportunities to thrive once given a second chance. The Getting Talent Back to Work pledge is a step-by-step process that companies and employers can follow to hire the formerly incarcerated in a responsible way. SHRM believes the pledge will create successful outcomes for employers, employees, customers and communities.
“I think it takes a level of ingenuity to be able to participate in criminal enterprising,” Reed said. “And I think that if given the opportunity you will see that those are the people in the workforce who are going to be your hardest workers. They are going to show up on time, they are going to put in 150 percent of the effort and go beyond because they know this is an exceptional opportunity for them.”