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Follow my dad’s example and hire people with criminal backgrounds

Former inmate Gregory Allen appeared at the White House in April with President Donald Trump to celebrate the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill.
Former inmate Gregory Allen appeared at the White House in April with President Donald Trump to celebrate the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill. (The Washington Post)

Last Saturday, December 21, marked the one year anniversary of the signing of the First Step Act, a vast criminal reform bill meant to right the injustices caused by mass incarceration,

Since then there have been numerous news stories about incarceration and recidivism, including one that ran on the front page of the Baltimore Sun. As the name of the legislation suggests The First Step Act, and the discussions surrounding it, are indeed a good first step. But we need to take reforms even further.

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For instance, more employers could follow the business model of my dad. He owns a meal preparation business in Baltimore. His company employs 44 workers with criminal backgrounds, accounting for 89% of his work force. Everyone wins by hiring previously incarcerated individuals. Jobs lower the threat of crime, while also helping those trying to change their lives reenter society more easily.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 27% of previously incarcerated people were unemployed at a rate of more than 27% in 2018. That’s higher than the national unemployment rate during any point in our country’s history, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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Jobs enable life. They provide necessary income for food and shelter and present a productive way to pass time. Take away jobs (or don’t even offer them in the first place) and problems invariably arise. How does someone survive without money? Robbery, stealing, and illicit drug sales, for a start. If people can’t earn money the honest way, they will turn to criminal activity as a means of survival.

A study published by the University of Chicago found that when the unemployment rate drops by 1%, property crime decreases by at least 1.6%. These findings demonstrate a correlation between crime and a lack of jobs. Sure, the numbers don’t relate specifically to former inmates, but the premise remains the same: giving a previously incarcerated individual a job lowers the chances of crime.

Moreover, having a job reduces the chances of recidivism. In 2005 the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics began to track the release of prisoners across thirty states. Nine years later, 83% of these individuals were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release. That’s a staggering number, but jobs can help. A Manhattan Institute study following nonviolent former inmates found that, after three years, only 31.1% of these individuals were sent back to jail if they received “enhanced” job training.

In addition, jobs help to build self-worth and confidence. Prison socially disorients, even alienates, people. After months, or in most cases years, of being treated as inferior and corralled by prison guards, many previously incarcerated individuals seek normalcy. Few routines are more normal than catching the bus to a nine to five job. Or reporting to a boss in an environment of expected trust and responsibility.

To take it a step further, a study done by the United Kingdom’s Department for Work and Pensions found that employment also makes people more physically active. Those who work are more likely to have better long-term health and lower mortality than those who don’t. This very well may be due to the disparity in wealth. Regardless, it’s simply unjust to exclude individuals from potential benefits due to their past actions.

Many employers believe that previously incarcerated individuals pose a safety threat to their businesses.

However, according to the Greater Boston Legal Services, no studies demonstrate a correlation between hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds and an increase in workplace violence, crime, or theft.

Furthermore, a Cornerstone (formerly Evolv) study on previously incarcerated employees demonstrated that such individuals were often harder workers than those with squeaky clean records. In fact, employees with a criminal record are often 1 to 1.5% more productive.

Put these changes into place and it should work out for you. That’s how my father found success. Sure, mishaps have occurred, such as a few individuals who had drug issues or repeated absences. But after nearly six years of running his business, my father now has a hard working team that is responsible and committed.

So, the next time you come across an application with a criminal background, don’t push it to the side. Consider it. You may just find your best worker, while helping them out at the same time.

Olivia Fox (foxo@brynmawrschool.org) is a high school senior at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.

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