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Untapped Potential: The Upside of Hiring People with Convictions

Employees with criminal records stay in jobs longer, have similar performance as peers without records.

Jerry Blassingame, left, founder and CEO of Soteria Community Development Corporation, works at his organization’s job-training program, Soteria at Work, where people who are formerly incarcerated create furniture from reclaimed wood. Soteria helps people coming out of prison in South Carolina with housing, jobs, and other reentry support. (Courtesy of Soteria Community Development Corporation)

As millions of American jobs remain vacant, companies that refuse to hire people with criminal histories are missing out on dependable, long-term employees, experts say. 

Despite the challenges and limitations people with justice system involvement face when searching for jobs, research shows that a criminal record isn’t a predictor of job performance. To the contrary, researchers have found that people with a criminal record stay at their jobs longer than people who do not. They’re also not more likely to leave their jobs because of misconduct, according to a study of sales employees. And it’s not just matter of being able to hire good employees; it’s an issue of employers tapping into a largely excluded population as a way to address massive insufficiencies in their workforce.

Matt Joyce, partner at Envoy, an organization working with companies on fair chance hiring practices, said it’s crucial that employers don’t exclude people with a criminal history from jobs, especially with the roughly 10.9 million job vacancies across the country. By updating their policies on past convictions to be more inclusive, they’re accessing an enormous pool of candidates that they may have previously overlooked,” he said. 

Joyce said that clients who have hired candidates with criminal histories have found success, and more businesses are coming to the table to discuss the importance of hiring people with records, and the approaches they can take to market jobs to those potential employees. 

RELATED: RAND research is first to quantify the toll of legal system involvement on people’s ability to be hired.

To help inform that dialogue, in January, RAND released recommendations for employers changing their hiring practices to include people with justice system involvement. Researchers pointed out that the majority of people with a conviction are not convicted again and a person’s likelihood of reoffending rapidly declines as more time passes. In fact, after enough time, people who were considered to have the highest risk of reoffending transition to risk levels on par with people deemed the lowest risk.

Instead of relying solely on background checks, RAND is advocating for a more advanced tool for employers that predicts the chance of someone reoffending with greater accuracy — a tool that takes into account the fact that people are less likely to be system-involved again, the further removed they are.

Some say that employers should go further still, and that background checks should not be used at all.

Joshua Kim, the national director of litigation for economic opportunity at Root and Rebound, a California organization focused on reentry, said that he believes banning background checks or making them more expensive to run would have a substantial positive impact on job advancement for people with convictions. In his work with people with a criminal history, he said, he typically sees people hired into temporary, low-skilled positions. Then when they are eligible for a promotion, they receive another background check and are fired.

That teaches people with criminal records, keep your head down and stay in a low-income position,” he said.

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A criminal record should not result in a life sentence to poverty or the inability of a person to care for themself and their family, and move forward.

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