American prisons today are playing host to two crises at once—the COVID-19 pandemic and the epidemic of mass incarceration. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the United States was already incarcerating more people than any other country on earth.
Now as COVID-19 spreads throughout our overcrowded prisons, government officials have begun releasing inmates with minor offenses to alleviate cramped conditions where social distancing is entirely impossible.
So what happens when the previously incarcerated look for work in the crippled economy? On June 5th, the Governance Studies and Metropolitan Policy programs at Brookings Institute hosted a panel including Checkr’s Fair Chance Program Manager, Rehana Lerandeau, to give their take on how organizations can better support this population.
Here are the key takeaways from the group’s discussions:
1. Fair chance measures can lower rates of recidivism
Senator Cory Booker opened the panel by shining a light on the 40,000 legal barriers people with criminal records face as they attempt to secure access to fundamental resources. The criminal justice system is heavily weighted to favor those with money and who can plead to lesser charges. With a felony conviction, people have a significantly harder time applying for loans, housing, and work. On the other hand, access to education and work massively lowers recidivism rates. As a mayor in New Jersey, he implemented fair chance measures like banning the box on job applications and saw how criminalization decreased throughout the state.
2. Organizations like
Shelley Winner, a Surface Specialist working in tech, recounted her experience of looking for work after being released. She joined organizations like Code Tenderloin to meet tech companies face to face and was able to network in the industry. However, despite having a degree and being qualified for the roles she was applying for, she was rejected because of her conviction. Fortunately, the Fair Chance Ordinance act in her area was able to advocate for her application and she was able to secure a role.
3. Quality job training and access to social networks are key to getting people back to work
Makeda Henry Nickie, a law fellow in governance studies, spoke to the fact that Black unemployment rates have reached their highest in ten years due to COVID-19. That’s due in large part to systematic circumstances which have been carried over from pre-pandemic society.
Formerly incarcerated people have fallen behind the curve of people who can return to work as cities reopen. According to Henry Nickie, quality job training and access to social networks are key to helping vulnerable populations return to work faster. Training that equips people with modern job search tools, real world experiences, and professional networks that can get them in front of the right employers will make a great impact.
4. More employers need to embrace fair chance hiring
Our very own Rehana Lerandeau took the stage to share how traditional background checks are often a barrier to employment for the most qualified talent. She emphasized the importance of more companies adopting fairer hiring practices and opening their doors to people with criminal records.
In addition to becoming fair chance employers, companies also need to work with background check vendors who can help reduce the bias found in the hiring process by allowing employers to ignore irrelevant charges. For example, if you’re hiring someone for a desk job, does it really matter that they have a DUI on their record from 10 years ago? By ignoring charges that don’t apply to the roles at hand, companies can create more opportunities for people with records and in turn, can bring in new diverse talent.
5. Businesses have a responsibility, now more than ever, to give back to their communities
The panel closed with Charles Rosen, CEO of Ironbound Hard Cider and New Ark Farms, who shared how he was very intentional with his hiring, from very early on, and has worked to hire returning citizens almost exclusively. He urged businesses to look beyond the success of their direct shareholders and understand the broader community through which they operate— and cited the current climate as a perfect time to take steps to become more socially conscious.
As employers, you can make adjustments to your existing programs both great and small, right now. You can be more inclusive in your language, reevaluate your hiring criteria, and hone in on the driving beats of your company ethos. If you have roles to fill, consider creating internships that are accommodating for all experiences levels. Meanwhile, in your existing networks, you can advocate for the benefits of fair chance hiring and encourage your peers to consider the crises at hand. Large scale structural changes will come in time, and fair chance hiring will eventually become mainstream. Until that day arrives, organizations need to act quickly and collaboratively to make room for those who are getting left behind.