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The prison of unemployment

Hiring the recently incarcerated can be good for business

Is it safe to hire someone who just got out of prison?

That’s a question that would be answered in the affirmative by at least four entities: state courts, Rowan College of South Jersey, the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners and the Workforce Development Board.

All four sponsored the Gloucester County Reentry Job and Resource Fair last Friday at Rowan. That event marked a second chance for recently incarcerated men and women in the area to meet employers and access resources. 

It’s not a far-fetched idea. Consider the numbers: 80 million Americans have a criminal record, a potentially large pool of talent. Yet studies also show that a criminal record alone can reduce the chances of a second job interview by 50%. Events like the Rowan employment fair are a good way to reverse that trend locally. 

“Research shows that recidivism rates are cut in half for returning citizens when they become gainfully employed,” said Board of Commissioners Deputy Director Heather Simmons of the fair.

That sentiment reaches higher in government. The Biden administration has laid out a strategy to get more former prisoners into jobs that will not only benefit them, but also the general economy. According to the administration, every year more than 600,000 people are released from prison to a freedom that gets them only so far without jobs. 

A 2018 study shows the formerly incarcerated have a 27% unemployment rate, exponentially higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate.  

“Not only does high unemployment impede successful reentry, it also increases the chances of recidivism,” the administration maintains. 

Barriers to steady employment and entrepreneurial ventures can also be a disadvantage to employers who might benefit from the formerly incarcerated and the skills they can bring to the table. According to the Center for Economic and Police Research in Washington, D.C., preventing people with a criminal record from fully reentering the workforce could cost the U.S. economy between $78 billion and $87 billion in projected economic output.

Biden signed an executive order in 2021 that made equity in federal hiring a priority, including by expanding federal employment opportunities for former prisoners. He has also called upon employers to leverage federal tax credits that can be an incentive for them to hire someone in that population.

So what benefits have businesses experienced by hiring the recently incarcerated? According to the D.C.-based Second Chance Business Coalition – a cross-sector group of large, private-sector firms committed to expanding second-chance hiring – 82% of managers report the value second chance employees bring to their organizations as high or higher than that of workers without records. 

Hiring returning citizens also leads to a more diverse workforce by opening the door to unique perspectives. And employers who have done so report that the recently incarcerated are less likely to quit than other employees, according to the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship.

“By securing full-time employment that is high quality, stable, and long term, people attain economic security,” Simmons noted. “Achieving economic security provides reentry individuals with self-esteem, a positive sense of identity and ultimately a more stable lifestyle out of crime.”

And that can’t help but be a good thing for the community.

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