To Hire or Not to Hire

All things being equal, I think it’s fair to say that most employers, when faced with a choice of hiring a job applicant with no criminal record versus one with a record, will decide to go with the former. While I am myself an ex-offender, I can’t say that if I were an employer, I’d do anything differently.

Employers are rightly concerned about workplace safety; hiring someone that has broken the law would seem to add security risk. And naturally there are concerns that a business could be victimized economically by an insider with bad intentions.

In my experience, while these concerns are understandable, they rarely materialize. First of all, there’s compelling evidence that ex-offenders can actually perform in the workplace better than those with clean records. (See this Washington Post article about a recent study.)

And the U.S. Department of Labor sponsors a bonding program, which provides significant insurance in the event of a financial crime perpetrated by at-risk employees. (It’s interesting to note that since the program’s inception, there have been remarkably few claims made.)

But no study or statistical analysis will mitigate the deeply held belief that those with criminal records are somehow damaged people who are bound to return to their lives of crime. In fact, many people believe that those who’ve done time really prefer a life of crime over the straight life.

It’s true that the national rate of recidivism is discouraging: approximately 75% of those released from jail or prison will return, within five years. It’s hard to address that sobering statistic without inferring that hiring an ex-offender will end badly.

But there’s another statistic that needs a place in this calculus: that nearly all of those that recidivate are unemployed at time of their re-arrest.

No great imagination is required to understand why a man or woman who has few legitimate (that is to say, legal) options for earning a living would return to familiar behavior on the street, where they got into trouble in the first place.

In past decades, public sentiment held that it was not society’s problem to find viable employment for those with records. They got into trouble on their own, and by God, let them figure out a way to get out of trouble. And if they can’t, we’ll build another prison and throw away the key.

Thankfully, there’s a growing awareness that this approach doesn’t work—not even a little bit. The economic costs of incarceration to society —to say nothing of the costs to its citizens when an ex-offender commits another crime—are a poor investment, given the depressing rate of recidivism.

The cost to our towns and cities are dramatic when huge swathes of young people are shipped off to prison. And finally, the cost to families—to wives who lose husbands, to kids who lose a father or mother—can only result in this pernicious cycle repeating itself, generation after generation.

Citizen visitors to prisons or jails inevitably end their excursion in amazement: their preconceptions of the caged animals they expect to meet are replaced by feelings of warmth and compassion for the human beings they leave behind. So many of those incarcerated were (and are) young when arrested, and regret their youthful mistakes.

They do not wish to repeat their illegal behavior, but rather want a fair opportunity to chase the dream of a better life, one which includes responsibility to family and society.

These visitors are frequently crying as they leave a correctional facility, because they feel guilty about deserting a human being that somehow touched their heart.

And that’s where this story should end, because we are talking about human beings, and they do have a heart, and they deserve a chance to get on with their lives and a fair shot at a decent job.

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