As the labor market tightens in our expanding economy, companies will need workers. And people returning to society from prison need jobs. Keeping potential employers and employees apart is fear, lack of understanding, and about 20,000 statutes and regulations across the country that restrict the hiring of ex-offenders.

Businesses and governments want to change that. Yesterday, the White House hosted a roundtable comprising executives from such companies as Uber, Home Depot, and Johns Hopkins Health System, as well as officials like governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Matt Bevin of Kentucky, to discuss the challenges and benefits of hiring the group of people now referred to as formerly incarcerated.

Crime has been in decades-long decline, but roughly 70 million adults in this country have criminal records; and more than 10 million return to their communities from incarceration each year. For this group, more jobs equals lower recidivism equals better lives. Yet fresh starts are curtailed by cultural bias, skills deficits, and myriad regulatory barriers. Among the most common: state rules that deny professional licenses to people with criminal histories.

Roundtable participants said they would like to see such rules eased or eliminated. They also want more collaboration between governments and businesses to create pathways from incarceration to employment (primarily for nonviolent offenders). The idea of creating more job-training programs inside prisons was discussed. So was raising the profile of the Department of Labor's 52-year-old federal bonding program, which guarantees for six months the honesty of hard-to-place job candidates, including people with criminal records.

The smallest business at the table was also the most experienced. For more than 30 years, Greyston Bakery, based in Yonkers, New York, has practiced "open hiring"--filling available positions with anyone who wants them, no questions asked. The $20 million company has employed thousands of ex-offenders. Around 65 percent of the current workforce has been incarcerated.

During the roundtable, Greyston CEO Mike Brady dispelled some of the myths around hiring ex-offenders, whom he called "fully functional and productive members of our team." Insurance and workers' comp costs at Greyston are no higher than at comparable businesses, and turnover is actually lower. "Our history is a demonstration that people coming out of the criminal justice system make for an amazing workforce," said Brady, in a follow-up interview.

Brady urges businesses to be much more inclusive about hiring. Growing competition for talent, he says, "is a great opportunity to look at your human capital plans and make them more welcoming." The challenge for small companies differs from large ones, however. "We don't have a large staff of human resources people and lawyers who would raise obstacles to these programs," he says. "But those resources would also make it easier for us to address risks."

Policymakers have been making some strides. For example, more than 150 cities and counties have adopted ban-the-box rules preventing employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. But there's a distinction between making it harder for companies to not hire the formerly incarcerated and persuading them to actively seek out ex-offenders and help them become valued employees. "The governor of Kentucky said we have to keep biting the apple. There is just so much low-hanging fruit," says Brady. "Progressive businesses have an opportunity to take the lead in giving people a chance. It has got a positive ROI if you do it right."

Published on: Mar 1, 2018