April 10, 2017

Survey: Small businesses willing to hire ex-offenders

Q&A talks with John Santa, retired executive of Santa Energy and the chairman and founder of Malta Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes the hiring of individuals convicted of crimes.

Q: The Malta Justice Initiative announced 97 percent of the 311 Connecticut employers it recently surveyed support the concept of giving formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance. If that many are comfortable hiring this population, why is employment an issue for them?

A: Advocacy for a second chance has increased only in recent years, and many employers say they have not had experience hiring those individuals. Our recent history of tough prison sentences has filled our prisons and done little to help those individuals re-enter civilian life. And to be clear — our goal isn't to require or force employers to give jobs, but give formerly incarcerated men and women the opportunity to apply and make their case to be hired.

Malta conducted this survey to better understand employer attitudes so we can have a more productive public discussion and find real solutions. What we found is employers are open to being educated. That tells us that if we can coordinate support from peers, from community programs and through state and local policies, we can give more individuals an opportunity to get hired.

We also heard that employers have a tough time finding properly trained candidates for many positions. If we work with employers to provide the right training, more jobs can be filled. Given the numbers of people our justice system incarcerates, it is good public policy and frankly a necessity, to help those individuals return to society.

Q: Are large employers more likely to hire released prisoners or are small businesses? How practical is it for small businesses to hire released prisoners if qualified applicants with clean records are available?

A: Smaller employers tend to have more flexibility to consider the stories of job applicants. Larger employers have corporate policies that are designed to minimize time and risk in the selection process. "Checking the box" to answer the question whether or not you have ever been convicted of a crime becomes a screener and people who have served time are taken out of consideration.

Employers should always have the ability to look into an applicant's background. What we are asking is that employers give the formerly incarcerated a chance to tell their story. There are two categories of people coming out of prison: those who are ready to work, and those who are not. If an employer listens to a story, they will know very quickly where that applicant fits.

Q: According to your research, employers are more likely to hire ex-offenders if there are salary subsidies, tax credits and health insurance coverage offered. Any projections on what programs like this might cost the state annually versus incarceration costs?

A: Malta is advocating changes in policy and approach that would save the state significant dollars. The annual cost of incarceration is $51,000 per person. We know that 93 percent of individuals who get and keep a job don't return to prison. People who have jobs pay taxes and buy homes and services in the community, contributing to the economy.

If funds were available to support tax credits for hiring incentives, it would be welcomed. But there are a great many programs and business incentives that we can promote at little or no cost.

We want to educate employers, to dispel fears and encourage them to give formerly incarcerated men and women a chance. Employers will be able to discern which applicants they can hire and which they cannot.

Q: The survey also said employers support laws to make discrimination without justification against formerly incarcerated individuals unlawful. Yet, it also says, 61 percent believe employers should have complete discretion to decline employment. How can this be reconciled?

A: Everyone wants and deserves a fair chance to get a job and to live a productive life. We are simply saying that employers should make a hiring decision based on qualifications.

A law requiring employers to consider applicants who have been incarcerated but have paid their debt and now want the chance to earn a living would provide strong policy guidance. We would advocate that the policy not create a private remedy or cause of action against employers, but leave enforcement up to state authorities.

People coming out of prison want jobs to pay the rent and eat; they don't have the time or money to sue employers. I have never heard of a lawsuit against an employer because they didn't hire a formerly incarcerated person.

Q: Employers support hiring ex-cons if they can be held harmless in their hiring decisions. Why is this a concern to employers?

A: Employers in significant numbers are concerned about legal liability, and have said that they would welcome legislation that would grant immunity for negligent hiring. But the political future of that kind of proposal in the General Assembly is uncertain. For employers, hiring individuals with a criminal record is daunting.

Experience shows that when employers take the time to listen to the story of an applicant with a prison history, they know whether that person is ready for the job.

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