“When you sentence someone, do you sentence them to 10 years plus one year of unemployment? Or 10 years plus three years of unemployment?”
Nena Walker-Staley, Assistant Deputy Director of Programs and Reentry at the South Carolina Department of Corrections, raised the question during the opening day of the “Smart on Crime” innovations conference held at John Jay College Tuesday.
Despite having done their time, many incarcerated men and women struggle to find a job after they leave prison, Walker-Staley said at a panel entitled “Fair Chance Hiring.”
“When they come out, the barriers they face are the businesses that won’t hire them” she said.
But it’s not because they don’t have the necessary skills to succeed.
“They learn all kinds of skills inside,” Walker-Staley noted. “When I look at these hardwood floors I know our guys scraped hardwood floors. They make furniture. They do welding. They run the asphalt machines that make our highways better.”
“We work them inside, but when it’s time to go home, they’re rejected.”
She cited businesses such as Greyston Social Enterprise, which specifically hire formerly incarcerated men and women to end this cycle of rejection.
According to Walker-Staley, they have an open-hiring initiative, stating in effect that, “anyone who comes to our bakery is given the chance to work, no questions asked.”
External Affairs Jonathan Halperin, who heads Greyston’s external affairs department, said the company’s goal is to create not just thriving businesses, but thriving communities.
“If we are not dealing with creating jobs for the formerly incarcerated, as businesses we will struggle because the communities will struggle,” he said.
“There is now a more robust dialogue about the role of business innovation and how that can drive social inclusion.”
Even if federal support isn’t forthcoming, states can create employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated population, the conference was told.
New York’s Fair Chance Act, passed in October of 2015, mandates that businesses owners cannot ask about the criminal record of a job applicant before making an offer.
That allows applicants to be judged by their qualifications and not their previous criminal history. If after a job offer is made, employers want to revoke their decision, they must explain why.
Some 287 organizations in the state signed a pledge committing them to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds.
“But there was no accountability in the pledge,” observed Genevieve Martin, Executive Director at Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon-based company established to provide employment for the formerly incarcerated.
“There isn’t a body that is able to usher it forward and do more with it.”
That leaves the question “what does it means to have an open hiring system, or a fair chance hiring system?” unclear, said Martin.
“Simply, we need a completely new set of recruiting techniques” Martin noted.
The new techniques must challenge your perception, your gut feeling, about hiring someone with a criminal record, she said.
“Once we challenge the perception on an individual level, then we can start to challenge our professional beliefs.”
It’s all about the dignity of work, said Greyston’s Halperin.
“If anyone wants a job and is willing to work,” Halperin said, “He or she should be afforded the opportunity to experience the dignity of work.”
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.