There’s no mystery about one of the most effective ways to end mass incarceration in America: reducing recidivism. More than three-quarters of those who have served time in prison are rearrested within two years. And it’s equally clear that formerly incarcerated people who are employed are far less likely to end up back behind bars.
Yet the path back to a stable life can be incredibly tough for formerly incarcerated people. People with prison records face extraordinarily high levels of discrimination when it comes to finding and keeping the jobs that will help them reclaim their lives. This is true even though they have already paid their debt to society, and even though most of them have served their time for minor, nonviolent drug and property crimes. Studies have shown that people coming out of jail face unemployment rates as high as 70 to 80 percent.
And while restoring the rights and opportunities of formerly incarcerated people is a critical public-safety and public-health issue, it’s also an issue of racial justice: African Americans and Latinos currently make up 59 percent of the more than 1.3 million state inmates.
We all pay the price when a formerly incarcerated person can’t find a job and lead a productive life. Without the proper support, it is a good bet that an individual will end up back behind bars at a cost to taxpayers averaging more than $30,000 a year nationally, more than $60,000 a year in New York state and more than $75,000 a year in California. The good news is that over the last decade, a movement led by formerly incarcerated people has been working to advance employment opportunities for people returning from prisons and jail — and winning.
In a new report, the Rosenberg Foundation has documented how this movement has gained unprecedented momentum, moving both policy and public opinion. From labor unions to major corporations, and from Republican and Democratic elected officials alike, support for “fair chance” hiring practices has been achieved across the ideological spectrum. This progress is due in large part to the courageous advocacy of formerly incarcerated people and visionary organizations like All of Us or None/Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the National Employment Law Project, the Opportunity Institute, and others.
California, where per-inmate costs are among the nation’s highest, has been a leader in these efforts, enacting fair chance policies and expanding educational opportunities and reentry services to support formerly incarcerated individuals’ efforts to get jobs. One recent example is a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown requiring private employers to “ban the box” on job applications that asks job seekers if they have a criminal record.
Ban-the-box laws aren’t new. California is one of 29 states that in recent years have put such policies in place for public-sector employers. But the new law makes California one of 10 states — and the biggest — that now require private employers to ban the box as well.
These policies benefit employers as well as potential employees. With estimates as high as one in three American adults having an arrest or conviction record, employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people severely reduces the pool of skilled and qualified candidates employers need. Besides, ban-the-box laws don’t preclude employers from running a criminal background check once they have decided that someone is qualified and have made a conditional offer of employment. Rather, these laws simply stop employers from blindly rejecting job candidates based on their records.
In addition to highlighting the successes of this movement to date, the new report lists 10 “priority actions” for California and the nation as we set out to build on the progress we’ve achieved in reducing employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. These include curbing abuses in the background-check industry, broadening incentives for employers to hire people with past convictions, and expanding public and private investment in education pipelines that begin in prisons and continue after release.
Steps like these would go a long way toward remedying America’s mass-incarceration crisis. Thanks to the leadership of formerly incarcerated people, it’s becoming an easier remedy to find.
Timothy P. Silard