Earlier this year I took a group of local organizational leaders on a tour of the factory after which I told them we’ve openly hired machine operators with colorful criminal backgrounds; some had lengthy stays in prison while others are or were under probation.
This was a shock to the tour group because back in their workplaces – and in many throughout America – hiring of former criminals just isn’t something that’s done. The overzealous use of background checks for any position under the sun, as well as the dreaded “have you ever been convicted…” slot on application forms have forced many human resources managers to look at one-time lawbreakers as having the plague.
Well, let me tell you this: They don’t “have the plague”. Most of those who spent time in jail or had their names splashed across the police reports in your local paper are, for the most part, just like the alleged straight shooters in the world. They want to overcome their histories. They want to make good on their lives. They want to raise perfect families. They want to contribute to society. They want to work.
When they are given that chance to work, they succeed. Ex-cons have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. They saw how the other side lives and they don’t want that life anymore. They know the importance of the straight and narrow and they relish the freedoms and rewards that the squeaky clean types tend to take for granted. A good life is a great motivator.
This shouldn’t be an earth-shattering realization for employers. But, here in New York almost two-thirds of ex-cons remain unemployed one year after their release because of the stigma associated with their backgrounds. Employers fail to see that former criminals come out of their pasts being better people and better workers.
Like our public school systems, our correctional systems should be looked at as more than just a cost burden, but also as an investment. That’s the whole point of the legal and penal systems in a civilized society. Our tax dollars help to educate convicts, teach them trades, introduce them to self-discipline, and reform their behaviors. It’s a mammoth undertaking of resources – the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year while the 2 million Americans discharged from probation annually had individually cost $4,000 for every year under watch.
It’s an investment that should be capitalized on, but, it’s obvious that the general consensus is “once a criminal always a criminal”.
Is that the way a just people should think? Judging by the outpouring of prayers whenever a natural disaster or act of terrorism strikes our world, Americans are still a people defined by their Christianity. The religion is based on redemption and the salvation of sinners so why shouldn’t those principles be practiced at large, including in employment? People shouldn’t claim to live up to the standards of their religion yet absolve themselves of its founding tenets.
Likewise, as another teaching of Christianity goes -- let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A lot of convicts and folks in the probation ranks were unlucky enough to get caught doing what so many other people do. New Yorker’s arcane Rockefeller Laws imprisoned folks for years for having possessed drugs. How many people under the age of 70 can claim that they haven’t tried marijuana or don’t know anyone who has used/uses weed? There are very few for either category and those smokers were fortunate enough to not get busted for it. Similarly, how many thousands of customers leave bars and restaurants every day with a little too much alcohol in their systems and never get caught?
None of that makes what the ex-criminals did right, but it should show that how they are treated post-release is wrong. We need to give them chances. We need to give them jobs. By doing so, we are helping society to make good on its investment in its people and, in turn, helping to improve our workplaces.
From the 11 April 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers