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Labor Shortage? Not Really. Millions of Americans Need a Second Chance.

People with criminal records just want to work, and they can be good employees. There’s a lot that governments could do to enable this untapped workforce.

A person unlocking a prison door.
The “Great Resignation” has created a record number of job openings, leading employers to believe that there is a critical labor shortage in this country. But we are not facing a labor shortage. We are facing a second-chance employment shortage. Government, in its laws and policies as well as its own hiring practices, can play a significant role in giving people who have paid their debt to society after criminal convictions an opportunity to show what they can do.

America has a large pool of untapped talent in every community: people with criminal records. A 2021 report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice estimates that 1 in 3 American adults — 78 million people — has a criminal record. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year; at any moment, according to HHS, our country has roughly 7 million people on probation, parole or supervision, or still in jail or prison.

The problem is even worse for Black men. A 2010 University of Georgia study found that 33 percent of Black men had a felony conviction, despite the fact that male African Americans make up less than 7 percent of the U.S. population. However, people with criminal records are not recognized as a category in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Predictably, people with criminal records experience very high unemployment rates. The Prison Policy Initiative calculated the unemployment rate for people with criminal records at 27 percent. In contrast, the country’s overall unemployment rate currently stands at just 3.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent job openings report showed 133,000 open positions in accommodation and food services, and 31,000 open positions in manufacturing. These are just two of the many industries where talented people who happen to have criminal records could fill the gap. And second-chance hiring is good for an employer’s bottom line. Studies have shown that retention rates are higher, turnover is lower and employees with criminal records are more loyal. Less turnover saves employers money.

As a former prisoner myself, this issue is personal to me, and I have worked with the private sector, governors and presidential administrations to create and optimize second-chance hiring policies and programs. When I was incarcerated, no one asked me for money, but nearly everyone asked me to help them get a job after they were released. The people I was in prison with wanted the dignity of work so they could support themselves and their loved ones, reunify with their families, and restore their self-worth.

There are a number of things that state governments can do to help people with criminal records find jobs and the business community fill its workforce vacancies. To begin with, states can pass expungement — record-clearing — laws. Fourteen states now broadly allow felonies and misdemeanors to be expunged, while another 23 have narrower expungement criteria for felonies and misdemeanors. Five other states allow expungement only for pardoned felonies and certain misdemeanors, and three states and the District of Columbia allow only misdemeanor expungement. Five states and the federal system have no expungement law. Without broad record-clearing laws, a person with even a minor criminal conviction will always wear that scarlet letter.

States can also enact “ban-the-box” and similar fair-chance hiring laws, which require an employer to consider merit alone by removing application and interview questions surrounding the existence of a criminal record. Once a person has been provided a conditional job offer, the employer may still conduct a background check and rescind the offer if appropriate.

In addition, states should enact business-friendly laws that limit employer liability when hiring people with criminal records. This is critically important in states with weak or nonexistent record-clearing laws. For example, Colorado law prohibits an employee’s criminal record from being introduced as evidence in a lawsuit against an employer unless there is a direct relationship between the criminal history and the underlying facts of the claim. Florida, a state without a record-clearing process, protects employers from a negligent-hiring presumption in cases where the criminal-records check “did not reveal any information that reasonably demonstrated unsuitability of the prospective employee.”

Beyond setting policies for the private sector, states and local governments can lead by example and hire people with criminal records. The Great Resignation has also affected public-sector employment, and people with criminal records can fill many of those gaps. California, for example, has provided expedited records expungement for people in prison who help fight fires so they can obtain the necessary certification to pursue that as a career. Recently, the Colorado Department of Corrections posted a position that permitted people with criminal records to apply.

Steps like those track with changing attitudes in the private sector. A 2021 survey of human resources professionals found that 81 percent believed that the quality of workers with criminal records is generally the same as or better than workers without records, a 14 percent increase from 2018. Eighty-one percent also felt that the cost per hire was nearly identical.

Fortunately, more of our business leaders are recognizing the significant value in second-chance hiring. The Second Chance Business Coalition, led by Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Craig Arnold of the Eaton Corporation, has brought large businesses into the space: Walmart, McDonalds, Verizon, Accenture and Koch Industries are among more than three dozen companies that have come together to work on this issue. Government should follow the lead of the business community and create policies to encourage their hiring efforts.

An advocate and consultant, John Koufos helps companies optimize second-chance hiring and social determinants of health, and mitigate risk. His work has helped thousands of people with criminal records secure jobs. He served a sentence in a New Jersey state prison after injuring a person in a drunk-driving incident in 2011, at a time when he was a trial lawyer. He can be reached on Twitter at @JGKoufos.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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