As we continue to navigate our return to work, millions of Americans will be faced with the harsh reality of choices made in some cases decades ago that branded them with a criminal record. Doors of employment opportunities will be closed, finding a career similar or even close, to their pre-COVID position will be challenging and for many devastating. Those recently returning from incarceration will now join the millions of unemployed with a criminal history. Over 600,000 people return from prison each year. Historically, the unemployment rate for those leaving incarceration has been a staggering 25%, and now, ironically, our entire country faces an employment rate which may meet this tragic level, one only seen at the height of the great depression. Right now, we’re focused on the men and women being released from county, state and federal prisons as a result of the COVID 19 and how we can support them. However, the impact for recently displaced workers who have long since faced the wrath of the criminal justice system will now be front and center as they too seek to reenter to workforce.
It has been estimated that over 70 million Americans have a criminal history of some type that can be found in the national criminal record database. How many of these individuals have successfully reintegrated, moved on to become financially stable, successful, and model citizens? How many of these individuals worked jobs and built careers for years or decades without so much as a missed day from work? How many of these individuals advanced from the entry level position that they once took as a first step to moving forward in life? How many of these individuals are now unemployed and will be subject to indiscriminate background searches, job applications asking about their past, or facing antiquated occupational licensing restrictions? Over the past years we have made huge advances in educating employers about the talent pool of men and women returning from prison that need and deserve a fair chance at employment. Now, the pool of candidates with a criminal history has grown exponentially and the challenge will be to keep the doors of opportunity open for all people, irrespective of their past.
Based upon data from 2017, the exclusion of formerly incarcerated jobseekers from the workforce cost the United States an estimated $87 billion in lost GDP. Further, nearly 75% of those formerly incarcerated are still unemployed one year after release. Research has confirmed that the impact on Black and Latino communities has been especially devastating as racial disparities in the criminal justice system has only served to exacerbate bias in the employment arena. For decades, we have thrown men and women returning from prison into the deep end of the river with often no life support to help them navigate the waters filled with strong currents and barriers to success. With the displacement of so many workers from COVID-19 the river has now gotten wider and larger and those in the shallow end, with no criminal background, will have the advantage of getting career opportunities simply because of where they are positioned. If employers dive into the deep end of the river, they will find an abundance of talent, skill, dedication, passion, and persistence; this is where we will begin to breakdown the inequities and inherent prejudice that acts as an anchor for so many people in our society.
We use the term “returning citizen” to refer to a person who has recently been released from incarceration. However, reentry is merely a point in time when one leaves a place in their life and moves forward in time to another destination. So is true for the men and women who have lost their careers as a result of this pandemic, as they will now join the ranks of millions who hope to reenter the workforce and find that career pathway to success. No matter when the event of the past became forever recorded, the choices of the past have led to lessons that have helped to make us wiser and stronger, and certainly do not define who we are today. The success for those searching for employment will be found not in the past, but in the skills, knowledge, talent, and passion they bring to the workforce today and into the future. If our country is to economically recover from the devastating loss of people, jobs, and the life style which we were accustom to, it will be incumbent upon employers in all industry sectors to be fair in their hiring practices, select the best qualified and talented for the opportunity, and be compassionate in evaluating the historical markers of the past that only served to make us stronger and more valuable in the workforce.