Recently, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) conducted its second working group meeting on the issue of prisoner reentry. Working group members traveled from across the metro-Atlanta area to convene with like-minded professionals who desire to see prisoners succeed in reentering society. The members come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including criminal justice agencies, various non-profits, addiction recovery, research, and reentry consulting (not to mention one member is a former prisoner himself).
Employment is the first area of focus that we chose to address as a working group. This was a logical place to start because of the critical role employment plays in the successful reintegration of offenders. For starters, having a job enables ex-offenders to meet their basic needs for food, housing, clothing, and transportation. Secondly, it affords them the means to meet various obligations that they may have, including paying child support, court fees, damages, and restitution. Last but not least, work provides offenders with an important sense of purpose, accomplishment, and worth which are essential for human thriving. For all of these reasons, having a job and maintaining it is one of the strongest antidotes for recidivism.
However, getting a job is not that easy for a person coming out of a prison. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that he carries an unattractive criminal record.
Each time an ex-offender seeks a job, he must face the dreaded question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
It is precisely his response to this question that will most likely disqualify him from the job that he seeks. It is not likely that he will get a chance to explain his arrest or conviction to the employer before he is screened from the pool of applicants. All the ex-offender wants is the opportunity to demonstrate that he is the right man for the job, but the box on the application keeps him from showing the employer the extent to which he is qualified.
It would be easy to condemn employers for not hiring more ex-offenders, but we also must consider their point of view. Employers desire to hire the best possible candidates for positions that they are trying to fill, and they may reasonably feel that a college graduate better suits a given position than a 30-year-old ex-offender with no prior work experience. Employers want workers who have demonstrated success, who have proven their reliability, who will represent their company well, who are effective at managing their time, and who can appropriately handle stressful situations. They want problem-solvers, and they have little patience for problem-creators. If they have reason to believe that an ex-offender may create issues in the workplace because of her history, it is understandable why they would show reserve in hiring her.
However, without considering an ex-offender’s qualifications, the obstacles she has overcome, and the potential that she offers, an employer is cutting both himself and the ex-offender short.
In automatically screening those with a criminal history from the pool of applicants and labeling them as a liability to the company, an employer could be passing up his best employee. Many offenders are itching to prove themselves to employers, to their families, and to the community, and they will go to great lengths to do just that. They want to demonstrate that their lives have been turned around; they want to show that they can provide for the needs of their families; they want a shot at redemption.
In discussing this reality, the working group agreed that employers should take three things into consideration in order to ensure a fair hiring process. These include the nature of the crime committed and its relation to the position sought, the amount of time that has elapsed since the crime, and the qualifications of the ex-offender in reference to the job. By taking these criteria into account, the employer can assess the risk that the ex-offender may pose to her company, while also evaluating the value that he would bring.
Finally, the group discussed the benefits that could occur by an employer postponing the question about criminal history until after the interview is conducted. This policy would be good for several reasons: It would allow the ex-offender to put his best foot forward during the job interview; it would enable the employer to critically evaluate the applicant’s qualifications independent of his record; and finally, it would give the ex-offender a chance to explain his felony conviction in person. This process would promote fairer hiring practices and would greatly enhance an ex-offender’s opportunity of getting a job.
And in a world of seemingly insurmountable odds, ex-offenders need all the opportunity that they can get.
• Roberta Meyers, Ray P. McClain, and Lewis Maltby, “Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring,” The Legal Action Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and National Workrights Institute, 2013, http://www.lac.org/doc_library/lac/publications/Best_Practices_Standards_-_The_Proper_Use_of_Criminal_Records_in_Hiring.pdf.
• Paul Samuels and Debbie Mukamal, “After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records,” A Report by the Legal Action Center, 2004, http://www.lac.org/roadblocks-to-reentry/upload/lacreport/LAC_PrintReport.pdf.
• Margaret Colgate Love, “Relief from the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction: A State-by-State Resource Guide,” Prepared with support from an Open Society Institute fellowship, October 2005, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/4cs/files/2008/11/statebystaterelieffromcccc.pdf.
• “How to Cut Prison Costs” New York Times, November 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/how-to-cut-prison-costs.html.