Editor’s Note: Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management and an adviser to Safe Streets & Second Chances, an initiative to reduce the high rate of recidivism in America, which receives support from Koch Industries. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Our prisons are broken. The United States is home to 4.4% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s inmates. And while the goal of incarceration is to produce law-abiding and rehabilitated citizens, 75% of released prisoners are arrested again after five years.
As we wait for legislative reforms aimed at tackling recidivism, America’s private businesses can help put a stop to this ruinous cycle by equipping offenders with jobs and work experience. Research by the Indiana Department of Correction found that unemployment was the greatest predictor of recidivism, with unemployed offenders being more than twice as likely to reoffend than those with a job.
For starters, companies must no longer view a criminal record as an automatic disqualification for employment.
More than 60% of employers say they would “probably not” or “definitely not” be willing to hire an ex-offender. But, as the Society for Human Resource Management has told HR professionals, that is no longer a viable hiring strategy because so many potential hires have a record. Nearly one in three working-age adults has a criminal record, so businesses must be willing to hire qualified applicants from this vast pool of nontraditional applicants, or else face a competitive disadvantage.
Businesses that refuse to hire ex-offenders hurt not only their bottom line but also the wider economy. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that job barriers for ex-offenders put as many as 1.9 million people out of work in 2014, costing the economy an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion in annual GDP.
Although many employers are often hesitant to hire ex-offenders, they can expect a high degree of loyalty from these applicants for giving them an opportunity when others have not. A growing body of research shows that hiring workers with criminal records helps companies increase employee retention and reduce turnover. Electronic Recyclers International is a case in point. When the company instituted a program to hire ex-offenders, its turnover rate fell from 25% to 11%.
Another big hurdle facing former inmates is a lack of relevant skills and work experience. Many young people enter prison without ever having held a job, and upon release they face the daunting challenge of finding employment with a criminal record and a blank résumé.
Here, too, businesses can transform lives by providing work and vocational training in prisons.
Companies across the country have partnered with state and local correctional agencies to give inmates access to real-world work opportunities, ranging from circuit board manufacturing to fruit packing. These partnerships are a win-win for prisoners and businesses; prisoners benefit by gaining work experience and wages to support themselves and their families, while businesses benefit by gaining access to a largely untapped talent pool.
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Companies can also partner with prisons to provide inmates with vocational training in industries such as auto repair and information technology. Those who participate in vocational training programs are 28% more likely to find employment after release. Despite the success of such programs, they were offered by only 52% of state and federal prison facilities in 2005.
Whether by making a commitment to hire ex-offenders or providing work and training to inmates, businesses have a critical role to play in providing opportunity to those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system and, ultimately, in reducing recidivism and enhancing public safety.
Many prisoners and ex-offenders are desperate to make an honest living and would make hardworking, loyal employees. All they need is a second chance.