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Businesses can't find people to hire. So why is unemployment still so high for this demographic?

Stereotypes about people with criminal records hurt employers as much as they do would-be workers.
by Chandra Bozelko and Ryan Lo /
Image: Job seekers mill about employers' booths at a job fair in Washington
Job seekers mill about employers' booths at a job fair in Washington on Aug. 2, 2017.Jessica Contrera / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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Despite a record 6.7 million open jobs in America and the fact that nearly one-third of small businesses cannot fill open jobs, the stigma against hiring formerly incarcerated people is so severe that more than 27 percent of us are unemployed, according to a study out on Tuesday from the Prison Policy Initiative.

That is higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression, when unemployment was 25 percent — and it suggests that many businesses would prefer to leave positions open rather than hiring us, even though economists have speculated that people with felony records would have an easier time finding a job in this time of low reported rates of national unemployment.

But we don’t.

The negative perceptions about formerly incarcerated people persist because business owners and hiring managers aren’t aware that formerly incarcerated people aren’t the liabilities we’re made out to be. (For one, a supermajority of workplace crime is perpetrated by people who don’t work at the site or have no criminal record whatsoever.) In fact, ex-offenders can actually be better for business than other categories of employees.

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, for instance, studied data on approximately 250,000 applicants for sales and customer service jobs in the U.S., they found that ex-offenders who secured jobs were no more likely to be fired than non-offenders in the same positions. We’re also less likely to quit, making turnover amongst people with criminal records lower than typical employees.

And, when the U.S. military eliminated its ban on people with criminal records and allowed them to enlist, those people performed better than their non-convicted counterparts and were promoted sooner and more often.

The difference in job performance between convicted felons and those with no record isn’t marginal. In a study the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions conducted on its own workforce, they found that only five percent of all hired people had positive work histories after 10 years at the medical center, but the population of employees with criminal records boasted 20 percent of its members having positive work reviews.

None of this should surprise anyone; it makes perfect sense that people with criminal records understand that businesses don’t want to hire them and they repay the chances employers take on them to prove themselves with superior performance.

It’s for exactly this reason that many businesses hire formerly incarcerated people exclusively. Felony Franks in Oak Park, Illinois, Unlabeled Digital Media in Los Angeles and Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York (the producer of the brownies for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream) are just a few of the small businesses that actively recruit applicants who’ve tangled with the criminal justice and other systems to fill out their employee ranks. While hiring someone with a criminal record might be a public service, it isn’t charity; it’s just good business sense.

The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people further suggests that the laws designed to mitigate that condition aren't working. Collectively called “Ban the Box laws,” because many of them outlaw felony conviction checkboxes on job applications, laws designed to force employers to consider our qualifications before our convictions have been adopted by 31 states and over 150 cities and counties in the United States since the first one was enacted in Hawaii in 1998. In 11 of those states, private employers aren't allowed to ask about convictions on job applications at all. Yet, according to one study, more than half of ex-offenders in two states with some sort of legislation still don’t have a job eight months after leaving correctional custody.

Part of the problem could be is that these laws reinforce the stereotypes that a criminal conviction is something that needs to be hidden — or at best strategically revealed. Banning the Box never made formerly incarcerated people look like outstanding employees; it just let hiring managers get to know people outside of the lens of their past mistakes. But, as it turns out, those mistakes, what everyone thought must have been a deficit, are actually often a strength.

This isn’t to say that the impetus behind Ban the Box is wrong or that it is without positive impact: In the 20 years since the laws were first introduced, they have helped people with criminal records get hired. But removing the chance for an applicant to tell a future employer about how their perceived weaknesses are actual strengths — a trope of every job interview — did nothing to educate businesses about how formerly incarcerated people can be valued workers (let alone signal to employers the significant tax breaks available to employers under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program).

Still, while our backgrounds contribute to the characteristics that make us more loyal, more productive and more valuable, it’s possible that no government policy will remove that hardened stance against this disempowered group of people. Business owners and managers should choose people who will serve them best — and that's often formerly incarcerated people.

Employers need to change their thinking about employing ex-offenders and let go of stereotypes. The question is no longer whether we deserve a second chance with a job; the question is who deserves us as employees.

Chandra Bozelko is the vice president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and writes the Webby Award-winning blog Prison Diaries. Ryan Lo is a 2016 senior Soros justice fellow and founded Unlabeled Digital Media, a production company that employs system impacted people exclusively. Both are 2018 JustLeadership USA "Leading with Conviction" fellows.

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