At the Goodwill Opportunity Center in Charlotte, North Carolina and South Carolina Attorney Generals Josh Stein and Alan Wilson, along with event moderator and Fifth Third Bancorp Chief Investment Strategist Jeff Korzenik, discussed hiring former convicts and felons to utilize what they call the “hidden workforce.”
According to Korzenik, the U.S. adds 2.5 million jobs each year to keep its economic expansion going and half of those are taken by immigrants. It’s even harder to fill those roles with a national unemployment rate of 3.5%. He suggests former criminals could be the solution to the labor shortage.
“There are 19 million Americans with felony convictions,” he said at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance conference. “But 12 million of those were such a minor felony conviction, they didn’t require any supervision,” referencing the 7.3 million Americans on parole.
He adds that there’s a general misunderstanding of what it means to have a felony and how easy it can be to be convicted in the U.S. criminal justice system.
“Those who have been excluded from the labor force or are unemployed because of their criminal history are not actually a burden on society, but an incredible resource for us to tap,” he says.
Korzenik says the solution lies in a partnership between the government, including policies that promote rehabilitation, nonprofits and their resources, and private businesses, to capitalize on the largely untapped former criminal population.
“We tell people in prison, ‘you need to pay your debt to society so you can reenter society,'” Wilson said, “and then when they reenter society, we give them no bridge from incarceration to employment. And then what options do you leave them?”
“Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated will get out,” Stein said. “If they get out and only find door after door, they will go back to doing what put them there.”
Attorney General Stein says one of the biggest challenges is ensuring the skills of the labor force meet the needs of employers.
Both Carolinas have instituted programs at some level to help prepare former convicts for the workforce.
In North Carolina, the Second Chance Act, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting approval in the House, helps those with criminal records get different levels of nonviolent drug offenses expunged from their records over time by meeting certain requirements.
South Carolina’s Department of Corrections has a 180-day program which screens, trains and pre-licenses former criminals so they’re ready to join the job market once they complete the program. The first 30 days of the program is comprised of aptitude assessments to determine what jobs match the person’s skill set, and the rest is spent on job training and application help to ready them for the hiring process.
Wilson said it’s important to attack problems such as addiction and mental health issues and develop job skills while convicts are still in prison, then need local re-entry councils to catch them once they are out of incarceration.
South Carolina is also incentivizing employers to hire former felons with tax benefits. While similar benefits are not available in North Carolina, there are federal financial incentives including tax breaks and federal bonds, in the case of theft or other issues on the job site, for those that hire the formerly incarcerated.
Both Stein and Wilson emphasized the importance of utilizing nonprofits and their resources to benefit from the hiring of former convicts. Many can provide food, clothing and assist with housing for those with financial issues after incarceration. By partnering with nonprofits, employers can provide better opportunities for employees they say.
“People are not who they are at their worst moment,” Stein says. “We have to be willing to give them a second chance.”