Labor Day reminds us of the enduring spirit of the American workforce. This day isn’t just about barbecues and the unofficial end of summer; it’s a celebration of the tenacity and resilience of workers everywhere. Yet, amid this celebration, an overshadowed segment of our population longs to be part of this American work ethic: the 79 million people in this country with a criminal record.
In the US, 95% of incarcerated individuals will return to our communities. However, despite 81% of business leaders and 85% of human resources executives acknowledging that individuals with criminal records perform just as well or better than their non-incarcerated peers, 27% still face unemployment. Sustainable employment is crucial for individuals to rebuild their lives and break the incarceration cycle.
Individuals need fair opportunities to reskill, reintegrate and rebuild their lives to break the incarceration cycle. Our 45 years of expertise in education and corrections reform underpin this belief.
Reskilling: The key to unlocking potential
The path toward meaningful employment starts with education. Education in correctional settings can reduce recidivism rates by 43%. Yet 57% of our nation’s incarcerated individuals do not receive educational programming. Numerous justice-impacted individuals lack basic credentials like high school diplomas, a significant hurdle in pursuing higher education or securing a job. However, the desire to learn is evident — 100% of these adults are interested in pursuing academic courses. Hence, correctional facilities should prioritize access to educational programs and career-readiness courses from day one.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Correction partnered with APDS to provide free education and career readiness courses to incarcerated individuals statewide from day one of their incarceration. APDS is an example of an organization addressing the disparity in correctional facilities. These courses mark a significant development. Massachusetts is currently the only state in the US committed to providing tailored and personalized education, workforce skills training and rehabilitation programming from the outset of each individual’s incarceration. With a declining recidivism rate, Massachusetts can become a model for other states.
Reentry: Challenging stigmas and systems
Inclusive hiring of those with an incarceration record is to support their reentry into society. Such hiring means we must question our biases and how our systems work. One of the biggest obstacles those previously incarcerated face is the stigma of their criminal history. In 2021, nearly two-thirds (66%) of human resources professionals said they would be willing to work with individuals with criminal records. This figure is up from 49% who said they would be ready in 2018. However, more is needed. All human resources can support reentry by accepting gaps in resumes, transferable skills from incarceration experiences and functional resumes over chronological.
Greyston Bakery is a company leading the charge in inclusive hiring. The bakery has an Open Hiring® policy where anyone can get a job when they enter their front doors without a resume, background check or interview. Likewise, The Body Shop is another example of a company with an open hiring policy that accommodates candidates who may face barriers to employment. On a government policy level, more states can implement clean state laws that provide criminal record relief through expungement and sealing.
As of 2021, several states, such as California, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Utah, enacted an automatic sealing law. This law has been significant as it correlates to increased employment and earnings for those previously incarcerated. After an expunged record, within three years of participation in the workforce, income grew by a third — from $4,000 below the baseline to nearly $2,000 above the baseline.
The need for enduring (soft) skills is another significant obstacle for previously incarcerated individuals. While they can develop these skills through career readiness courses and earn certifications while in prison, they still require assistance navigating workplace nuances upon reentry, such as building relationships with co-workers or calling in sick. Therefore, companies need robust human resources departments to support those reentering society and ensure they are not unfairly penalized as they navigate the process. On a state level, the New York-based program Getting Out and Staying Out, which provides reentry for young men aged 16 to 24 through education, employment and emotional well-being, has noted recidivism rates are 15% or lower, compared with 67% for young men in a similar age group nationwide.
Rebuilding lives: The greater good
At a fundamental level, everyone deserves a chance at a better life. In July of this year, the US Chamber of Commerce reported the US has 9.8 million job openings but only 5.9 million unemployed workers. With an unemployment rate of 27% for formerly incarcerated people, this is a gap we can work to fill. However, companies are losing access to diverse perspectives and skills in their workforce due to this exclusion. Likewise, there is approximately a $78-$87 billion loss in US GDP due to excluding formerly incarcerated job seekers from the workforce.
We have a long way to go in making workplaces in the US accessible and equitable for all, including those previously incarcerated. Ensuring the previously incarcerated have fair and equitable access to reskilling, re-entering society and rebuilding their lives is vital. As we celebrate workers’ contributions on Labor Day, let us challenge our biases and imagine a workforce that embraces second-chance hiring, allowing individuals to contribute to and enrich our communities.
Arti Finn is the co-founder of APDS, an ed tech and public-benefit corporation on a mission to break the cycle of incarceration through education and living wage employment. APDS addresses the disparity in correctional facilities by using education to turn corrections into true rehabilitation centers. Its proprietary Whole Learner Framework™ curriculum, focused on the lived experiences of incarcerated individuals, is designed for renewed career readiness, reskilled education and training on a customized pathway at no cost to the justice-impacted and their families.
Amy Lopez, Ed.D., CEO of Past the Edges Consulting, leads teams of professionals to build educational programs and reentry opportunities for correctional institutions and alternative education organizations. Amy has been an educator for over 35 years, of which the last 20 years have been in correctional facilities.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.