It’s Time to Rethink Candidates’ Criminal Records

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There is a major labor shortage, especially in the hourly wage worker market — to the point that it’s crippling businesses since they are unable to operate fully. Solving this crisis will require both society and employers to rethink how they view hiring individuals with criminal records, and in particular, those who have been previously convicted of felonies, as well as those who have been formerly incarcerated. 

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record, which is a staggering number of people. This has major implications when it comes to employment, since it often prevents opportunity, which becomes a vicious cycle, increasing the likelihood of someone reoffending. As a nation and the employers within it, it’s time to start rethinking hiring workers with past criminal records

[Editor’s note: Join “From Cell Block to C-Suite: The Ins and Outs of Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Individuals,” an interactive ERE webinar on Thurs., Aug, 5, to help you elevate your hiring practices to leverage an often overlooked talent pool.]

Labor Shortage

As mentioned, there’s a dire labor shortage these days. Indeed, you may have seen a lack of staff at local restaurants or during a recent hotel stay or even inside your own organization. As the pandemic subsides, companies are struggling to hire workers, especially in the hourly wage worker market. 

The truth is that employers cannot afford to be as choosy as they once were, which is a good thing since there are approximately 1.9 million formerly incarcerated workers in the labor force who are all too often treated as unemployable. 

But why? It’s time to both offer opportunity to this workforce and solve the talent shortage.

The government has clearly shown its support for changing this view — 26 states have legislation that bars employers from asking for criminal record checks. Again, allowing this workforce to have opportunities is good for them and helps with hiring during today’s tough times. 

Allowing Reform

Imagine making a mistake at a young age (say, between 17 to 30 years old) and then having that mistake, for which you already served your sentence and have lawfully earned your right to freedom, follow you with a constant stigma. Imagine that drastically inhibiting your ability to earn an honest income and provide for yourself and your family. 

What do you think the likelihood is that you would potentially reoffend? Five out of 6 people who were released from prison in 2005 were rearrested at some point over the course of the next nine years.  

What’s more, a study released in March 2018 found that 45% of people released from prison had not reported earning income for the entire calendar year after their release. Common sense suggests that work opportunities are the best way to offer routine and reform to those who have made mistakes at some point in their lives.  

On the other hand, constantly preventing people from moving forward with their lives maintains a cycle of hurt and puts people at risk for reoffending. It’s toxic, and if companies would change their policies and open up opportunities for all, the outcome would likely be a considerable decrease in people reoffending. 

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Lost Taxes and Productivity

There’s data showing that the average cost to house, clothe, and feed someone in prison is the same as the average annual salary of a formerly incarcerated worker. By not offering employment opportunities to people who have been formerly incarcerated, we are essentially forcing them to reoffend since there are no other options. Everyone loses out, and all of society pays for it, quite literally. 

With the 1.9 million formerly incarcerated workers out of the labor market, due to their inability to find gainful employment, the U.S. economy loses $87 billion in gross domestic product.

Here’s another interesting fact: The GDP loss we experience from not hiring that 1.9-million-person workforce is the same as Sri Lanka’s entire economy! This workforce of formerly incarcerated individuals would rank in the top 65 largest economies all on its own. 

Really think about and digest that for a second. Why are we allowing — even forcing — that loss to exist? This does not even mention the taxes that are lost, which could be used for schools, infrastructure, and other high-value inputs to the macro U.S. economy. 

Time to Rethink

If we can take away any positives from all of the turmoil caused this past year by Covid-19, wouldn’t rethinking the way we treat people who have paid their debt to society be a good place to start? Especially when by just offering them career opportunities, we create a better, more productive economy for all of us? 

Let’s hope that the coverage and discussions this topic has generated continues gaining momentum and we actually begin to see some material changes over the coming months and years. Otherwise, continuing to support systems that were created and designed to force those in vulnerable positions to reoffend will only continue to result in that outcome. An outcome that quite literally punishes us all. 


Register for the webinar “From Cell Block to C-Suite: The Ins and Outs of Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Individuals” on Thurs., Aug, 5, for more information.]