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Formerly-Incarcerated People And The Employment Gap: Expanding Opportunities


Certified diversity executive, host of Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox podcast and Head of Content for The Diversity Movement.

Workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) often focuses too narrowly on issues of race and gender while neglecting other dimensions of diversity. My organization, The Diversity Movement, and other forward-thinkers in the industry are working to expand that definition by asking people to consider such dimensions as age, socioeconomic origin, religion, physicality and acquired or experiential diversity. Recently, I’ve been thinking about incarceration as one aspect of acquired diversity and wondering what it looks like to actively include formerly-incarcerated people in our hiring and employment processes.

As a society, we don’t always extend empathy to incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people the way we do to other underserved groups. In fact, I’d say bias often leads us to believe their marginalization is somehow deserved or, at the very least, defensible. Yet if more people understood the reality of our criminal justice system — from wrongful convictions to the large number of people in prison because of small-time drug offenses — they might feel differently. They might even give formerly-incarcerated people a fresh chance at building a career and contributing positively to our workplaces and communities.

With almost 2.1 million people imprisoned as of July 2021, the U.S. houses about one fifth of the world’s prison population and the largest number of incarcerated people in any country. Nonviolent drug convictions account for a startling portion of the U.S. prison population. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 46% of all the people in federal prisons were convicted of a drug offense, while just 3.1% of the total population of imprisoned people were convicted of homicide, aggravated assault or kidnapping offenses. To restate, one in five incarcerated people in the United States are in jail for drug offenses, many related to marijuana possession, meaning those convicted wouldn’t be in prison if marijuana were legalized just a few years earlier, or legalized in all states.

Despite declining rates of imprisonment among Black Americans, the racial disparities that have long plagued our justice system persist today. Black people are still incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people in the U.S. — and that rate is higher in many individual states. Black Americans represent one third of incarcerated people nationwide, almost triple their share of the adult population (12%). And, although people of different races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates, Black individuals are almost three times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses.

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Yet, even after these individuals — mothers, fathers, children, neighbors and former co-workers — have served their time, we’re quick to write them off as unworthy of another chance at employment. Conviction and incarceration carry a stigma long after someone’s sentence has been served and they’ve returned to civilian life. To that point, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that the unemployment rate of formerly-incarcerated people in 2008 was almost five times higher than that of the overall labor force at 27%. Also, according to several studies, serving time in prison reduces lifetime employment by as much as one third and hourly wages by 10% to 20%. Those who do manage to find employment are concentrated in low-wage jobs with little to no opportunity for advancement.

By giving formerly-incarcerated people a real shot at gainful employment, we unlock a pool of untapped talent with higher retention rates, lower turnover and more loyalty, in addition to the tax credits available for hiring formerly-incarcerated employees.

Economic research has found that hiring formerly-incarcerated people is simply good business, given the high costs associated with turnover and recruitment. These employees are often highly loyal and determined, exemplified by the U.S. Army, where enlistees with criminal records are 33% more likely to be promoted to sergeant.

Many major corporations — such as Walmart, Starbucks, Home Depot and American Airlines, according to the ACLU report — have also enacted more inclusive hiring policies with regard to formerly-incarcerated individuals. By expanding the hiring pool to include people with criminal records, business leaders can improve their bottom line, provide necessary opportunities and make a positive impact on society as well, as the ACLU found employing more formerly-incarcerated people reduces recidivism and increases public safety.

These high-level benefits may sound great, but still, it’s common to have a knee-jerk reaction and wonder “Is it dangerous to bring someone with a criminal background into my office?” To counteract that bias, let’s talk about the stats regarding safety and employing formerly-incarcerated people.

Far and away, employers who engage in this type of inclusive hiring describe it as a win-win. A 2009 report from Carnegie Mellon found that after five years of no new arrests, someone with a criminal record posed no greater risk of rearrest than the general population. Additionally, a poll of U.S. employees showed that 74% of Americans feel comfortable interacting with coworkers who have a nonviolent criminal record.

To recruit more employees who have this particular dimension of acquired and experiential diversity:

• Get in touch with local community organizations. Across the country, there are hundreds of service providers who specialize in connecting formerly-incarcerated people with available jobs.

• Remove criminal record questions from your job application forms. Don’t ask about someone’s criminal background until the interview, and preferably not until you’ve made a conditional job offer.

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• Use inclusive language in your job postings. Avoid phrases like “convicted felon” and “ex-offender.” Instead, note that any applicants with criminal records will be evaluated on an individual basis and clearly note that cultivating experiential diversity in your team is part of your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Formerly-incarcerated people represent one of the next frontiers in workplace inclusion initiatives. As business leaders and DEI practitioners, we must extend to them the same compassion, understanding and opportunities that we afford others. The path forward begins with opening our hearts, minds and hiring processes to people who have criminal records. We can all benefit from living in a society that forgives people for their past mistakes and gives them another opportunity to affect positive change in the world.

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