Editor’s Note: Robert Rooks is CEO of REFORM Alliance, a victims’ rights advocate, and a grassroots organizer for criminal justice reform. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As someone who has spent more than two decades in the criminal justice reform movement, I believe in a justice system that holds people accountable while also providing people with a trajectory toward rehabilitation, employment and well-being.
That mission, however, demands a functioning economy and job market. So when I see that record numbers of workers are leaving their jobs, my heart sinks. How will we possibly implement newly enacted infrastructure plans during a period of alarming workforce depletion? Who will lay the railroad tracks, install the high-speed broadband and refurbish our ports?
The solution lies with one of our nation’s most underserved workforces: the formerly incarcerated and people on probation and parole. Of the estimated five million formerly incarcerated people in the United States, more than 1 in 4 are unemployed, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. Amid a historic labor shortage – a trend that the current Omicron and future Covid variants could exacerbate – this population is an untapped resource.
But we need criminal justice reform to fully activate this workforce’s potential. While employment is a requirement for many on probation and parole, the conditions of supervision in many cases make it virtually impossible to get and keep a job. Curfews, distance restrictions and licensing requirements are logistical barriers to employment. Moreover, navigating the labor market with the stigma of a conviction can be daunting, and despite Ban the Box laws that forbid employers from asking applicants to check a box if they have a criminal record, discriminatory hiring practices can still make it difficult to land a job. When a formerly incarcerated person can’t work, they can’t feed their family or make their community stronger and safer. This lack of opportunity makes the formerly incarcerated more likely to become trapped in a cycle of poverty instead of contributing to our economy.
President Joe Biden and our leading CEOs should double down on common sense reforms that would enable more formerly incarcerated people and those on probation and parole to get to work. Research shows that this is a population eager to find employment, with more than 90% of formerly incarcerated people between the ages of 25 and 44 either working or actively looking for a job, according to a data analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. These are potential truckers, cargo unloaders and delivery men and women to help the country overcome pandemic-era bottlenecks. They are potential engineers and technologists who will build the smart cities of the future and potential teachers who will educate the next generation of knowledge workers.
Businesses across the country are still struggling to achieve sustainable recovery while thousands of people released from prison during the pandemic are being reincarcerated and denied the opportunity to fill the void. An individual’s reincarceration is not always indicative of a crime. According to my organization REFORM Alliance’s analysis of data from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, about every five minutes, someone is sent back to prison for a technical violation of their probation or parole – such as crossing state lines to see family or being late for a meeting with their probation officer. This further deprives the nation of a chance to rebuild.
Americans agree that our economy is in a precarious position, but there’s not yet a widespread recognition that criminal justice reform can help fix it. The obvious, if unspoken, truth is that the carceral state of the US – the largest in the world– prevents us from realizing our full growth potential. The economy and our justice system are inextricably linked. Investments in criminal justice reform are investments in the economy that benefit both consumers and employers.
I met a man named Skip last month. Just two weeks out of prison, Skip was looking for work for the first time in 18 years. Carrying the heavy burden of a felony conviction and confined by the stringent conditions of his supervision, normally the stakes would be stacked against him. But he heard about a first-of-its-kind job fair cohosted by Roc Nation and REFORM Alliance that did not disqualify those with criminal records. Today, Skip has an offer to work at UPS.
We should incentivize companies to hire people like Skip. Those with a criminal record stay longer in jobs than those without one and are uniquely positioned to reverse the “Great Resignation.” In addition, policies like remote reporting that allow people to check in with their probation officer by phone or video can help them comply with the terms of their supervision while meeting work obligations. More states and counties should adopt these measures.
People with records do not lack talent or drive – they lack opportunity. We can enlist them for all sorts of work, from rebuilding our deteriorating roads and bridges, to administering life-saving vaccines, to manufacturing the chips that power the next generation of cars and computers. If the American people see reform as improving their own communities and bottom lines, we can build a more robust economy.
Criminal justice reform can mean many things, but the most fundamental goals of any reform agenda should be to stop the cycle of crime, reverse mass incarceration and provide a pathway to economic opportunity and stability. I have seen progress over the last 20 years, but not the transformational change our country direly needs.
We need to reimagine how we shrink our justice system and how we grow our economy. The answer to one lies in the answer to the other.