One out four adults—65 million—have been incarcerated in the U.S. criminal justice system. At least 40% of these individuals will re-enter the system after release. This is not new news. But it remains an enormous societal problem. Ironically, we know how to mitigate the problem: study after study has consistently found that ex-offenders are less likely to recidivate if they are employed, and the longer they are employed, the farther they get from re-entering the system. However, employers can be reluctant to hire those who have been previously incarcerated without understandable reassurance of safety and preparedness to join the workforce in a productive role.
Research reflects that employers who do hire ex-offenders generally find them to be excellent employees. They are dedicated. They are motivated, and the data suggest that, for the most part, they are grateful to be given the opportunity to work for a legal income. In most situations, an individual’s criminal record has no bearing on their ability to perform their job.
An ex-offender suffers a lifelong sentence reflected in the stigma that comes with the fact of his or her incarceration. It is the stigma that gets in the way of solving the problem of recidivism. Many people fear that an ex-offender may revert to criminal behavior. They tend to believe that ex-offenders possess inherent character flaws that make them untrustworthy, unreliable, and undependable. Sometimes these fears are born out, especially when a former inmate recidivates.
How do we balance the tension between knowing that to solve the problem of recidivism, we need to support our ex-offenders by employing them, with the knowledge that the potential for recidivism is high?
Any hope of dismantling the stigma the previously incarcerated face must lie in approaching the problem from both a practice and policy standpoint. Practice includes meeting the education and job skill deficits of an individual. Vocational rehab programs like those found in our Wildcat Services addresses these deficits and prepares individuals to be job-ready. Successful employment begins to break the stigma as employers experience first-hand the work of dedicated and reliable employees.
Today 92% of U.S. businesses call for a criminal background check before hiring an employee. If the background check reflects criminal activity—of any sort—then an employer is not apt to pursue the candidate. What would happen if we shifted the background check policies? What if an employer has a chance to meet and get to know a candidate before dismissing him or her based on criminal record? Would that—could that—make a difference in how ex-offenders are viewed? I believe it could.
The good news is that there are pioneering employers who are focusing on solving the problem of recidivism by successfully hiring the previously incarcerated. We are fortunate to be working with many of these employers who are chipping away at reducing the stigma associated with hiring the previously incarcerated and ultimately, helping to reduce recidivism.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.