The U.S. economy seems poised for revival, but “help wanted” signs that keep popping up in windows across the country tell a different story. With millions of positions going unfilled each month, it’s clear that our recovery won’t work unless it works for everyone.
And yet for decades, an entire population of our labor force has been overlooked and undermined: the 77 million Americans with a criminal record.
Because of stigma and misguided laws from the “tough-on-crime” era, job seekers with criminal records — no matter how old the offense — face numerous hurdles to being hired. Job applications often ask candidates to disclose convictions before an interview, effectively halving the likelihood of a callback from a hiring manager. States have imposed tens of thousands of restrictions on licenses for individuals with felonies and misdemeanors, barring those with convictions from profitable trades such as plumbing, real estate and cosmetology. And it was only in September that incarcerated individuals in California who volunteer as firefighters became eligible to fight fires professionally upon leaving prison.
These restrictions contribute to a significant labor crisis: Nearly half of all formerly incarcerated individuals experience unemployment during the full first year following their release. And these challenges are even more acute during the pandemic, with total employment still down from where it was in February 2020. One study from a criminal justice scholar at the University of Central Florida suggests that 30 to 50 percent of people on parole or probation have lost a job during the pandemic.
Beyond hindering our recovery, these barriers also fly in the face of employer needs. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that formerly incarcerated hires achieve the same or better scores on job performance, dependability, promotion potential and retention. While many employers say they are open to hiring people with a record, outdated laws and discriminatory hiring practices remain prevalent, keeping millions of Americans from securing jobs — while denying our economy a swift recovery.
This isn’t just a crisis of opportunity. It’s a crisis of inequality. Because of long-standing bias in the criminal justice system, Black and Brown people are far more likely to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated than their White counterparts — and, in turn, they are more likely to confront barriers to full employment.
With pathways to living-wage work, people with criminal records can rebuild their lives, provide for their families and avoid the cycle of recidivism rooted in poverty. And with greater access to professional experience, these people — disproportionately men and women of color — can build wealth for generations to come. In this way, the battle for economic mobility is also a key facet of the battle for racial justice. At the same time, as businesses hire and advance these workers, they’ll see long-term gains, too.
We can begin by normalizing the hiring of people with records. Businesses can adopt fair-chance hiring policies, which remove employment barriers for people with criminal backgrounds. Governments can help by responding to advocates seeking to expand eligibility for expungement of old convictions so that a criminal record does not become a life sentence. For example, Michigan and Connecticut recently cleared the records of 1.5 million people through “clean slate” legislation, opening career pathways for an untapped pool of talent.
Other reformers are using evidence to educate and support employers to adopt inclusive hiring policies, so that they assess applicants on skills, not stereotypes. As a result of these and other efforts, some of the country’s largest companies, including JPMorgan Chase, have hired thousands of employees with criminal backgrounds, opening essential opportunities for economic success. This is how, as CEO Jamie Dimon puts it, we can “expand the number of people we hire to ensure we get the best talent.” Meanwhile, thanks to a “ban the box” movement powered by formerly incarcerated advocates, many states now prohibit employers from screening for criminal records on job applications.
In tandem with anti-discrimination legislation, people coming home from incarceration also need support to earn skilled long-term employment, especially during covid-19. People like Jackie Helm, who was incarcerated for a decade, missing out on years of education and employment. Thanks to a transitional support program, she broke through the barriers that too many people with records face, finding a profitable career in welding.
These efforts create both opportunities and protection — a randomized study found that participants’ recidivism rates were up to 22 percent lower than those of a control group.
In a year bookended by a racial reckoning and a sputtering recovery, social sector leaders are driving a vision of a just economic system that serves everyone. That’s why the organizations we represent launched the $250 million Justice and Mobility Fund to scale the work of local and national advocates who are advancing these and other solutions. Unless businesses, governments and philanthropic organizations recognize that racial equity, economic mobility and justice reform are interconnected, we won’t be able to rebuild America fully and equitably. Indeed, as millions await their next opportunity, our job is clear — and, to borrow a phrase, help is wanted.
By Nancy Roob – Nancy Roob is the CEO of Bue Meridian Partners.
By Darren Walker – Darren Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation.
By Stacy Schusterman – Stacy Schusterman is chair of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.