How We Can Unlock the Potential of Formerly Incarcerated Talent

An estimated 1 in 3 working-age adults has a criminal history, representing a largely untapped pool of labor that is reliable, productive, eager to succeed – and often well-trained for in-demand skills.

Between 2 million and 3 million people in Michigan have a felony conviction. An estimated 27% of them are unemployed — equating to over 540,000 people with varying backgrounds, abilities, and valuable skillsets. Businesses can no longer afford to overlook this opportunity.

Although we have seen progress in opening doors to returning citizens – those who have completed their sentence in the criminal justice system – we could be doing more. Here’s why employers should give second-chance hiring another look:

Ample Labor Amid Talent Shortages

The U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates, at 629 per 100,000, compared to a global average of 140 per 100,000. The exact size of the justice-involved population in Michigan is not known but, based on national averages, could range upwards of 3 million, most of them men.

A 2022 study by RAND Corporation found that by age 35, 64% of unemployed American men had some form of criminal record. But this accounts just for those who were actively looking for work. It’s likely an even larger volume of prime-age adults in Michigan have dropped out of the workforce entirely because of the barriers presented by a criminal history.

Research shows that these workers are more loyal, productive, and diverse than those without criminal histories, and that there are strong connections between employment and reduced recidivism. This means communities also benefit from second-chance hiring practices.

Where Advantages Meet Challenges

Unfortunately, barriers still exist, including longer periods of time spent away from the workforce and the stigma of a criminal record. We are making progress toward dismantling these roadblocks, particularly here in West Michigan. Initiatives led by TalentFirst and our member employers include:

  • Successfully working with the Michigan Department of Corrections and Secretary of State to ensure the 9,000 parolees who leave prison every year have a state ID – a vital document for employment, housing and returning to civic life. This video explains the significance of this.
  • Advocating in support of passing the Clean Slate legislation, which automated the expungement process for eligible convictions. Michigan became the third state to adopt Clean Slate legislation and its policy is the broadest to date: It was the first state to include felonies within its eligibility.
  • Michigan also recently announced a $7.6 million federal grant to launch a collaborative approach to pre-release education, career guidance, social support and employment assistance to those who are incarcerated.

On the employer side, many companies have found success by delaying, or removing altogether, questions about criminal backgrounds on job applications. This practice, known as “Moving the Box” or “Banning the Box,” aids in attracting returning citizens as they are not discouraged by a requirement to disclose their backgrounds early in the hiring process.

Additionally, employers can emphasize individual assessments rather than holding blanket policies that exclude anyone with a criminal background. Before making a hiring decision, employers should consider the nature of the crime, as well as the time that has passed since the offense.

Opportunities to do More

In our recent report on Michigan’s declining Labor Force Participation Rate, we propose multiple recommendations to increase the labor market connections of justice-involved individuals, reduce recidivism rates, and incentivize more employers to adopt second-chance hiring practices:

  • Form a task force to identify and evaluate reforms that address employment barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated, including legal restrictions to work in certain occupations, secure housing, and receiving public assistance
  • Reform occupational licensing practices to eliminate the automatic rejection of people with felony convictions
  • Improve housing stability through discharge planning, an expansion of transition services, and the provision of targeted housing
  • Address negligent hiring liability through expungement, certificates of rehabilitation, and “evidentiary limitation” when an employee’s criminal history does not bear a direct relationship to the facts underlying a claim
  • Expand ”Certificate of Employability” criteria to include authorized programs of community-based sanctions and other reentry programs
  • Expand vocational villages to include training for a broader array of in-demand credentials
  • Move the Offender Success program and reemployment services from Michigan Department of Corrections to Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity

TalentFirst and its CEO-led working groups continue to focus on reforms and initiatives that leverage the vast potential of the formerly incarcerated talent pool. This includes development of a program to train and certify HR leaders in second-chance hiring practices, inspired by the Fair Chance Academy piloted by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Stay tuned for details, or send us a note if you would like to learn more.


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