No matter what one thinks about the criminal-justice reform bills under consideration in Congress, most everyone agrees that people with criminal records who have served their time deserve a second chance. Sadly, that chance is too often out of reach—a problem businesses can help solve.
Few things are as important for people trying to rejoin society as having a job. According to the Justice Department, more than 650,000 incarcerated individuals return to their communities every year, and after years behind bars they desperately need a chance to find personal fulfillment and provide for themselves and their families. But a combination of government restrictions and business hiring processes too often leave them with few, if any, opportunities for gainful employment.
The results are as predictable as they are disheartening. When people with criminal records struggle to find work, they become much more likely to re-offend. The lack of employment is one of the key reasons why over two-thirds are re-arrested, over half are re-convicted, and two out of five are re-incarcerated within three years of release.
The resulting increases in crime and incarceration rates affect everyone, first through a decrease in local safety, second through higher costs to taxpayers, and third through the lost value that those individuals could have brought to the economy. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates the annual lost economic value at between $57 billion and $65 billion.
To help end this sad cycle, businesses should consider instituting a “ban the box” hiring policy. A 2009 study by Harvard and Princeton researchers showed that checking the box on a job application that indicates a criminal record reduces the chances of a callback by 50%, with blacks hurt twice as much as white applicants with criminal records. By eliminating or delaying this question, candidates are less likely to be rejected before their qualifications are considered.
We employ this approach at Koch Industries—we officially removed the box last year, delaying the question until later in the hiring process. Before that, we had a process by which we reviewed a job candidate’s offense to determine whether it was job-related. Even if it was, we engaged in a further review into the nature of the offense and the time passed since its occurrence. The combination of these two policies has resulted in job offers to thousands of candidates with criminal records.
Many of those hired have been dedicated employees who have risen through the company’s ranks. For example: We recently hired three individuals who were incarcerated at a local prison in one of the states where Koch Industries has a manufacturing presence. The feedback from their supervisors and peers has been uniformly positive; the employees have been successful by all accounts. More important, each is on a path toward a productive and fulfilling life—something they otherwise might not have had.
We believe that banning the box makes sense from a business perspective. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates some 77.7 million Americans, or nearly one in three adults, have some type of criminal record. For employers seeking the best talent, it makes sense for a company to consider all factors, including any prior criminal record, in the context of a candidate’s other life experiences. We are in a global competition for the best talent period—not the best talent with or without a record.
While we support policies that ban the box for public-sector employers, we understand that a ban-the-box policy may not work for every private business. That is why we oppose legislative attempts—at the local, state or federal level—to mandate that this policy be adopted by the private sector. But we nonetheless urge companies to consider whether this policy works for them.
Many employers have already concluded that it does, including Facebook, Target and Home Depot. Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, where I serve as chairman, sent a letter to more than 100 of its business members on Aug. 15 urging them to consider implementing a ban-the-box policy. My hope is that others will make a similar determination.
Hundreds of thousands of people with criminal records try to rejoin society every year, and they want to contribute to their communities and improve their lives. We can help them by breaking down barriers that stand in their way. No one should be judged forever based on what they did on their worst day—and everyone deserves a second chance.
Mr. Holden is general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries and chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.
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