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Criminal Justice Reform Becoming a Corporate Priority

by David M. Reutter

With the rate of Americans who have a felony conviction steadily increasing as a result of the incarcerative state’s policies, corporate entities are experiencing a change of heart towards those with criminal records. In fact, many corporations say felons are often the most dependable, loyal, and hardworking employees.

The American job market has been extremely tight in recent years. Worker shortages span across the entire spectrum of the economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 9.6 million job openings in September 2023. Waiting to fill that void are millions of persons with a criminal record, but they are denied due to legal roadblocks, bias, and tradition.

Around 650,000 people are released annually from American prisons. One in three working age adults—70 to 100 million researchers say—have a criminal record. The biases appear in the classifications given to those with criminal records. Most sex offenders face registration that carries limitations on where they can go and what they can do in society. Violent offenders are another demonized group. Then, there are the nonviolent offenders. Each class is viewed through a different lens.

Many companies have joined the “ban the box” movement; that is, they no longer ask applicants if they have committed a felony or have a criminal record. Some states, such as Florida, impose licensing restrictions upon felons.

While the national unemployment rate hovers around 4%, the formerly imprisoned have a 27% unemployment rate. A year after leaving prison, 60% of them remain unemployed. The irony for many of them is that in addition to the stigma of being an ex-con, they are prohibited by law from seeking gainful employment in trades they performed or were trained in while incarcerated.

Troy Martin was released from Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution four years ago after serving 33 years behind bars. That prison was one of the first in the state to offer classes, like barbering, for prisoners to develop skills to reduce the possibility of going back, reported WCJB.

“That’s an employable job skill that an individual can use to live his life,” Martin said. Florida law, however, prohibits persons convicted of a felony from obtaining a barber or cosmetology license. While prison maintenance, wastewater management, and vehicle repair are trades that can be learned in prison, Florida law currently denies professional licenses to felons seeking to work as air conditioning, electrical, mechanical, or plumbing contractors.

A bipartisan proposal in the state legislature would change that. The Florida House Regulatory Reform and Economic Development Subcommittee approved a bill in November 2023 that would prevent the state from denying these licenses if the ex-con hasn’t been arrested in three years.

“We would like to see them reduce that time period to even less so when someone is coming out of incarceration, they can become immediately employable,” said Florida Cares Charity founder Denise Rock.

“This has been a barrier for a lot of people who are just trying to make a living, just trying to feed their families,” said Rep. Kevin Chambliss, (D-Homestead), who said he was working on changing other professional licensees to mirror the proposals for Barbers and Cosmetologists.

In Texas, advocates want to end debt-based driver’s license restrictions. When justice-involved individuals are hit with court fees they can’t pay, they may have their driver’s license suspended. But without a license, getting a job to help pay off the costs can be difficult, so the individual may be more likely to break the law.

“This legislation helps people reform and have a better chance after they come out of incarceration to be successful in life by getting a job, health insurance, supporting their kids, paying taxes, and not being on public assistance,” said Dave Emerick, an Executive Director of state and local government relations for JPMorgan Chase. “These are things that resonate with both sides of the aisle, and I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Legislative initiatives that open the job market are essential to reducing recidivism. Kenitra Brown, a staff attorney at the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center and adjunct professor at the Dedman School of Law, asked, “For a community that is genuinely concerned with what’s happening across populations in Dallas County, what can we do to make sure that we’re helping to remove these barriers or educating folks about the barriers that people are facing for justice-involved?”

“The bottom line is this: it is cheaper to train these people and provide them access to use these services than it is to incarcerate them for a period of time,” said Brown.

For companies jumping into the political fray, getting involved requires prudence. Yet, when there is bipartisan support such as with the Florida proposal, corporate advocacy is being seen. JPMorgan Chase & Co Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon penned an op-ed in The New York Times about second chance hiring. Then, there are the voices of those who either help ex-cons find work or who have afforded a returning citizen a second change by hiring them.

“You are going to find some of the most loyal and dedicated and engaged employees because you gave them this opportunity and this chance to acclimate into the work world that they haven’t had in the past,” says Gabe Madison, President of Bonton Farms, a nonprofit that has become a force for social change in southern Dallas. Other organizations involved in connecting ex-cons with companies willing to hire them are:

One CommunityUSA

South Dallas Employment Project

Second Chance Business Coalition

Responsible Business Initiative for Justice

Founded and run by philanthropist Toni Brinker, One CommunityUSA is a nonprofit focused on positive change in underserved communities through reentry, restorative justice, career training, and outreach.

Then, there is the bottom line for every business—earning profits. “It is pure economics,” said Vistra’s Chief Diversity Officer, Annette Underwood. “When I am talking to an executive thinking about the big picture, we know that the more people you bring into careers with livable wages, it increases your customer base. It does a good thing, and it comes back in so many ways.”  



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