As part of Second Chance month in April, Justice and Mobility Fund managing director Mindy Tarlow virtually sat down with Lucretia Murphy, associate vice president at Jobs for the Future (JFF) and director of the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement (CJEA). The Justice and Mobility Fund recently invested in JFF’s creation of the Center as a core hub to help employers gain the knowledge and expertise to adopt Fair Chance hiring, and help justice-impacted individuals get the training, credentials, and support they need to secure and advance in living-wage jobs.
Lucretia and Mindy talk about the vision for this new Center and how, together, they hope to usher in an era where hiring and investing in the long-term economic mobility of people with criminal records is the norm.
Mindy: It would be great to set the backdrop for this work. Employers are struggling to make sense of the labor market and, as you know, it’s a tight labor market, but not across the board…and it remains especially tough for justice-impacted people to be considered for good, growth-oriented jobs. How do you see the Center helping to advance a nationwide economic recovery that is as equitable as possible?
Lucretia: There’s no doubt the moment we’re in is complex. Jobs for the Future is working to help clarify the labor market for people – what sectors of the market are growing, and what are the needs in those sectors?
That said, I also think there’s room to simplify. There’s always going to be a need for good talent. And I think what we really want to say about people with past justice system engagement is that, as we think about an equitable recovery, let’s redefine talent and expand it to this population of 77 million people with records. Employers need to see them as an untapped talent pool and look seriously at how they engage their talent.
We don’t want to exclude an entire population of people based on a past experience. Because we know that this population is disproportionately going to be Black and Latinx. So racial equity is a huge issue in the labor market. Employers can push their internal equity, diversity, and inclusion practices by opening their ranks to people who have records, and who also are disproportionately people of color that they want to include in their workforce.
Mindy: As employers navigate these challenges, what barriers do they face in hiring people with past records? And what barriers do justice-impacted individuals face in getting work?
Lucretia: Yes, I do think for a number of employers, a lot of questions come up. Although most of those 77 million people have low-level offenses on their records, hiring from this pool carries the perception that you’re bringing people into the workforce who are dangerous. And that creates concerns for employers. They want their employees to feel safe. They want partners or customers to feel safe. So, I think the barrier of perception is a big one for employers.
Then, just the practicality of it. If you’ve never done it before, there are implications for your talent acquisition practices. There are legal and business concerns. So, I think for employers, trying to get the information that they need to make it practically make sense – what does Fair Chance hiring mean for them, how they do change their hiring practices, what are any of the legal liabilities that they need to be aware of – I think all of those are real barriers for them.
A huge challenge that affects jobseekers with records – and employers – is licensure barriers. Employers may well have very talented people that they’ve worked with either through internships or work-based learning programs but, due to licensure barriers, they know it will be a problem for those individuals to get the licenses they need to be fully employed in the occupation.
Mindy: But we know there’s a strong flipside as well. What are the benefits to employers of hiring people with prior records, beyond a sense that it’s a socially responsible thing to do? How can it benefit their businesses, their communities, and the economy overall?
Lucretia: We have the research to show that benefits go way beyond social responsibility. People with records have the talent and will to contribute. Once hired, they’re more likely to stay. And I think retention in this age of “great resignation,” or when any talent pools are tight, is always important.
The evidence also shows that they’re no more likely than people without records to have disciplinary or performance problems on the job; in fact, they’re good workers. Employers want to know, who’s going to show up, do a good job, and contribute? And research shows, and experience bears out, that this is exactly what they find when they hire people with records.
We also know that people want to work for organizations that are making a difference and deliver on a strong mission. And I think being able to say as an employer that you’re trying to take a stand with Fair Chance hiring to be more equitable…to reckon with a systemic injustice around mass incarceration, contribute to how people are redeemed in society, and show how society benefits from their inclusion…it’s such a powerful signal to send to employees.
In this way, employers are part of a much larger story when they hire people with records. They’re bringing talent to their businesses, but they’re also helping to reshape community in really positive ways.
Mindy: So, how will the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement deal with all of this? You mention a range of barriers that must be eliminated, and also a number of connections or synergies that need to be created – and frictions that need to be reduced – across the system. What is CJEA’s approach to realizing the change we seek?
Lucretia: It’s a big ocean, and we wrestle with how we boil it down. While there are a lot of barriers that people with records face, we’re focusing on that niche spot where economic mobility and justice reform intersect. For example, where do education, workforce development, and other factors really come together to move the needle on people’s economic mobility?
Within that space, we’re focused on employers because we know they have the footprint to change economic mobility at scale. Therefore, one of our priorities is thinking about what it takes to mobilize employers in a number of different ways. One is obviously in their capacity to hire, retain, and advance people with records to allow employees to move toward a level of economic self-sustainability.
But employers also can support the larger movement…to advance policy change and incentivize key reforms like licensure barrier removals because it expands opportunity for hiring. Where they can work in community partnerships to build pipelines that benefit their workforces.
At the same time, we have to invest in the other side to ensure that people with records have the skills, talents, and credentials to enter all areas of the labor market… not just at the entry level. We will work with practitioners on the talent-development side – whether it’s two- or four-year institutions, community-based organizations, alternative credential providers – to build those skills and competencies. And layer in policy and research efforts that sustains and amplifies that work.
This is a process that will take time – to invest for reasons beyond preventing recidivism, which is key, but to also shift our perceptions and practices in ways that help people and their families move toward long-term self-sufficiency.
Mindy: Digging deeper on this point, how will the Center specifically give employers the supports they need in recruiting, hiring, and advancing people with criminal records?
Lucretia: Modeling on what JFF does so well, CJEA will bring employers together, assess the issues they want to know about, what resources they need to put Fair Chance hiring into practice, and what additional resources they’ll need throughout the stages of implementation.
So, for example, we’d like to work with companies that have been tremendous leaders in this space, like Dave’s Killer Bread, Envoy, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others to support communities of practice that stregnthen employers’ capacity to learn together about how to recognize and promote the talents of people with records within their hiring pathways and current workforce.
CJEA’s platform of tools and resources would cover liability, perception, research, and other questions, and help employers connect with folks who have experience and expertise in those areas. We envision being a source of counsel, practical one-on-one guidance, research for making the case for Fair Chance hiring, assistance with certifying HR professionals, specific resources for legal teams, and so on – facilitating learning from peers who are further along the journey.
Beyond that, we envision publicizing data on the number of employers engaging in Fair Chance hiring, the number of justice-impacted people being hired, and the stories of their experiences. We want to amplify the great work that employers are doing so that it’s a more public and prominent story. Because people with records are talented workers, we want it to be more expected than exceptional that employers hire them.
It’s early stage, but we want to surface what employers have been saying they need, where they get their information, and how CJEA can best complement it.
Mindy: Absolutely. Removing barriers is incredibly important, but it’s not the end goal – it’s actually the beginning of helping people get on a career pathway and the beginning of a longer trajectory. It’s an arc where the two things need to balance each other, and it does take time. How do you envision Jobs for the Future’s partnership with the Justice and Mobility Fund in helping you to realize these goals?
Lucretia: I can’t overstate – but don’t want it to seem transactional – the funding. It’s transformational. Because, as you know as a practitioner in this field, Mindy, you don’t often get sustained funding to do the work. To build partnerships. To build data. And I think the way in which the funding is deployed, with the milestones that we establish together – it helps us to really dive deep in pursuing solutions.
What’s makes working with the Justice and Mobility Fund so good is the collaboration. You are open with your portfolio and connect dots across investees who take on different pieces of the puzzle. You encourage real collaboration, so that we can all come together on how to advance policy, or how to think about quality and efficacy in program design.
And then, the program staff working on Justice and Mobility are thought leaders in this arena. That thought leadership feeds into the goals, the strategies, what’s been tried before, where the lessons have emerged, what pitfalls to look out for. I’m grateful for all of the dimensions that come with the JAM partnership.
Mindy: Speaking of collaboration, I’d love to talk more about the collaboration CJEA has established with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Can you comment on what that partnership looks like and what you seek to accomplish through it?
Lucretia: The Justice Center brings broad experience with the key policy issues, as well as the real tactical experience of how those issues get put into practice in pieces of legislation.
JFF is well-versed in federal and state employment policies, federal and state education policies, and how they overlap with, say, TANF or housing policies that have workforce implications. Coming together with the Justice Center means they’re thinking with us on how these issues take shape in the playbooks that they’ve developed on a state-by-state level. They’ve identified the key levers in individual states that tie to workforce, housing, education, and other areas. So, they bring tremendous on-the-ground tactical and analytical expertise.
They also know which policy issues are common across states and which vary widely. Restrictive licensure requirements, for instance, vary tremendously state by state…depending on where you live, mandatory criminal background checks can bar you from becoming a hair stylist or cosmetologist, or a plumber or physical therapist. How do we make sure that a best practice for policy actually works in the context of Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York? Where are advocates already moving? How can we further grease those wheels to help pieces of legislation move forward?
Mindy: Now, for the big question – if the Center is successful beyond your wildest hopes, what do you think would be different in America?
Lucretia: I think if we’re successful beyond our wildest dreams, people would ask why we exist. They’d ask, “Well, why would we NOT hire someone just because of a record?” Right?! Like it would almost be nonsensical. The evidence would be clear, and it would be overwhelmingly accepted that people with records are talented employees. And employers hire talented employees. It would just be assumed.
I think that also is accompanied by work that we aren’t necessarily leading but want to be part of. That is, we’re erasing a lot of racial equity barriers. We’d no longer see barriers in the labor market where Black and Latinx people are congregated and segregated at the entry level, and we start to see people with records being hired at all levels and promoted within individual companies and within entire industries.
Ultimately, I think if we’re wildly, wildly successful, we’ve worked with the field to meld multiple movements towards equity and economic mobility. To a point where people with records no longer face extra scrutiny when it comes to employment, or housing, or voting rights. We’d start to see across the labor market that people are truly participating at multiple levels of opportunity and success. And we’d be coming to the Justice and Mobility Fund saying, “We don’t need to exist anymore.”