America is failing our returning citizens

Since 2017, April has been celebrated as Second Chance Month, yet it still requires Herculean effort for Americans with criminal records to find success. Here’s what we should do.

Did you know that one in three American adults has a criminal record? And that despite seeking employment at rates higher than the general population, formerly incarcerated individuals are half as likely to get a job because of their incarceration and face unemployment rates five times the national average?

You might not. That’s the reason why, since 2017, April has been designated Second Chance Month. It’s an effort led by Prison Fellowship and its hundreds of partners (and acknowledged by the White House) to raise awareness about the collateral consequences suffered by people with criminal records and to encourage employers, policymakers and other stakeholders to provide more second chance opportunities.

April also marks the 30th anniversary of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, an organization we started to provide an attainable option for financial success–business ownership–to people who have been involved with the justice system.

Despite the number of organizations and celebrities—from Kim Kardashian and Jay Z to Robert Kraft—who have encouraged criminal justice reform over these last three decades, becoming successful, productive members of society after incarceration became harder, not easier. In the Google era, a simple web search ensures that no one can truly escape their past.

The discrimination that these would-be employees experience perpetuates a cycle of economic insecurity and, unsurprisingly, nearly two thirds of formerly incarcerated individuals find themselves back in prison within three years.

Here are the four ways we can change that:

Support Clean Slate Laws

Tell your representatives to support “Clean Slate” laws that will automatically expunge low-level crimes after certain conditions are met. Once expunged, the government records will be unavailable in criminal background checks. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Vermont have enacted such laws and Louisiana set up a Clean Slate Task Force to evaluate how to do so. This is a step in the right direction, but since it relies on individual states to act, progress has been slow since the Clean Slate Initiative was launched in 2018.

Urge Google to Change Its Search Results

Even if we had Clean Slate laws in every state, it wouldn’t be sufficient. They don’t go far enough because third-party servers that contain articles about the crime, even once expunged, are still searchable. This next problem is big: Google.

Think about it. Before running a formal background check, most employers check a prospective employee’s social media pages and run a Google search on their name to learn about them. The answer is this: Google should provide people with criminal records a way to expunge their record from search results after a given period of time. The search giant should work with criminal justice organizations to develop a fair system that incorporates the seriousness of the crime, just like states have done when developing their Clean Slate laws.

Google has found a way to combat disinformation, block content from bad actors and protect users from malware, they’re more than capable of finding a way to prevent the public shaming of people who have paid their debts to society.

Increase the Number of Second Chance Employers

Businesses like Lowe’s, Kroger, Microsoft and Bank of America have signed onto the Second Chance Business Coalition, committing to increasing opportunities for people with criminal records. The Coalition, co-chaired by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, encourages large employers to adopt second chance hiring policies.

Hiring people with criminal records is not just good for the people being hired. It’s good for the economy. I’ve learned a lot about this subject from Jeff Korzenik, a friend and author of “Untapped Talent.” From an economic perspective, the United States is facing a worker shortage and one of the best ways to overcome that shortage is by giving more marginalized workers a chance at full employment. People with criminal records are a pool of 78 million Americans.

Again, progress is being made on this front but it’s not enough. As an employer, I understand the risk analysis that goes on when making hiring decisions. I was pleasantly surprised to read that people with criminal records are more loyal employees (they stay longer) and their job performance is the same or better than that of other employees.

Provide Entrepreneurship Training

As an entrepreneur, it was obvious to me from the first time I visited a prison with my friend Rev. Harris, who was leading a Bible study for inmates. It is easier for people coming out of prison to start a small business than to get employment. You’re in charge of your own destiny. If you’re providing a lawn cutting service, it is very unlikely that your clients are going to ask you whether you have a criminal record before handing over a check.

It’s this sentiment that has led to the growth of Inmates to Entrepreneurs over the years. Of all of the businesses I’ve run, I never had one take off as quickly as I did when we started offering free courses on how to start a business for people with criminal records.

In 2019 and 2020, there was legislation in Congress that would create opportunities for entrepreneurship education for federal prisoners. The “Prison to Proprietorship Act” passed in the House of Representatives 2020 and then subsequently died in the Senate. Rather than focus on more legislation, the answer is to bring awareness to entrepreneurship as an option for people with criminal records. There are many free resources available to support their start.

This Second Chance Month, a declaration from the White House is nice but real action on the parts of voters, Google, corporations and even the media would make a bigger difference.

Brian Hamilton is the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs. His work helping people who were incarcerated start their own businesses is featured weekly on the ABC show Free Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter

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