Author: Richard Bronson
When I was released from Federal prison in 2005, my efforts at landing a job almost always ended poorly; though never explicitly stated, I knew that either my age (at the time, 51) or the felony I’d been convicted of and sentenced on (securities fraud) were the non-starters. Had I been familiar with the depressingly dismal odds I was chasing in my job search, I might not have been so diligent.
But for many employers, a sense of fair play is not the sole reason for their going above and beyond in trying to provide those with records employment opportunities. Ask any one of their experience in making these “at-risk” hires and you’ll learn that not only have these employees performed adequately on the job, but that frequently they emerge as their company’s best employees.
Time behind bars teaches you how to follow orders while fearing making mistakes. And time behind bars leaves you deeply grateful to a company that takes a chance on hiring you. Employers are rewarded for that risky undertaking with a deeply loyal worker. There’s little room for a feeling of entitlement when you’ve done time.
But hiring someone with a record means more than gaining a team member with a great attitude. The US Department of Labor offers significant federal tax credits for hiring those with a record (under their Work Opportunity Tax Credit, or WOTC, program).
And a company is automatically indemnified from a financial crime committed by an “at-risk” employee within their first six months of employment under The Federal Bonding Program. (It’s interesting to note that despite this program being in existence for decades, there’s been but a few claims ever made. This population is not entirely comprised of angels, but they’re much more honest than most would expect.)
Unemployment is at an historic low. Combined with our current administration’s commitment to eradicating illegal immigrant labor, there’s huge demand for applicants to fill millions of lower-paying positions that the formerly incarcerated are ready, willing and able to assume.
In the 12 years since my release, I have seen a dramatic change in cultural and professional attitudes relating to the criminal justice system in general, and the hiring of the formerly incarcerated, in particular. About the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon (Attorney General Jeff Sessions not withstanding) is that the criminal justice system is seriously broken. More jail cells and longer sentences have done little to lessen the incidence of crime; rather, at a spectacular cost running to the ten’s of billions of dollars, the rate of recidivism in this country is shocking: there’s nearly an 80% chance that someone released from jail or prison will return to jail or prison within five years.
But a deeper dive into this statistic provides hope: almost all of those re-arrested are unemployed at the time. Contrary wise, employed people are rarely re-arrested. Employment is truly the silver bullet as it relates to recidivism.
As some 70 million Americans have some kind of a criminal record (one in three adults), almost all of us have direct or indirect familiarity with the daunting challenges faced by this vast population. And that connection has resulted in a rapid attitudinal change in the national zeitgeist. I have observed the change in my own life.
Many business leaders—indeed most of the country—believe that people deserve second chances. Should a mistake made in one’s youth result in a life sentence? Those with a rap sheet know that any background check or Google search will result in damning evidence of past sins, despite having fulfilled a sentence of incarceration.
Who among us has not acted foolishly by perhaps getting driving a vehicle after drinking that extra glass of wine? What businessperson hasn’t written off a social dinner as a business expense? Under the wrong set of circumstances, these seemingly commonplace indiscretions could result in a felony conviction and imprisonment. Morality is quite a bit more nuanced than perhaps we’d like.
A huge percentage of our nation’s incarcerated population is guilty of a drug-related crime. For them, it’s no consolation that the laws relating to some of the most common criminal infractions have changed, decriminalizing many of these violations.
There are precious few opportunities in life, much less in business, when we can make decisions that are simultaneously in a business’ economic interest as well “the right thing.” Doing massive social good and doing good business is truly a noble partnership, as many progressive companies are now discovering.
Richard Bronson is the founder and CEO of 70MillionJobs, a national recruitment platform for Americans with criminal records. He served a two-year sentence in a Federal prison for securities fraud.