By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

On February 21, the Michelson 20MM Foundation and Arnold Ventures co-sponsored an event held by RAND on The Case for Hiring People with Criminal History Records. The conversation addressed the current barriers that individuals with criminal records face and why abolishing these barriers would, in turn, help relieve the current national labor shortage.

The United States arrests, convicts, and incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other nation. At the same time, most employers don’t want people with a criminal record in their workplaces, which can be disadvantageous as individuals with a criminal record represent a staggeringly large percentage of the potential workforce. Last year, RAND reported that 64% of unemployed men in America have been arrested as adults.

Presently, we are experiencing a national labor shortage. If history is any indication, during a labor shortage almost half of all job seekers have records due to mass incarceration, over policing, racial disparities, etc. Many of them only have one conviction, which occurred when they were young; thus, adults who have only one conviction and have years out of the department of correction are at a very low risk of recidivism.

Navigating the Job Market Upon Release

The discussion kicked off with two speakers who sought and found employment after incarceration. They focused on the difficult dynamics of navigating the job market and their advocacy for improving the process. Shelley Winner, who is now the top performing Microsoft Surface Specialist in the world, was initially rejected by Microsoft and ultimately had to submit a claim with the Fair Chance Ordinance in order to receive a second chance. She was joined by Ken Oliver, who is Vice President of and Executive Director of the Chekr Foundation. These two incredible individuals are not anomalies. “Some of the brightest minds in the country are sitting inside a prison cell,” Oliver reflected.

Many formerly incarcerated individuals aren’t aware of the Fair Chance Act and, therefore, may not leverage their right to second chance hiring. The Fair Chance Act passed in California in 2018, a year in which 62 complaints were filed. In 2021, there were 144 complaints filed, which is not a significant increase considering the millions of people in California with records. The discussion led to asking ourselves: Why such low complaint numbers? Kevin Kish, who is the Director of the California Civil Rights Department, explained that people get discouraged by initial job rejection and either don’t know or have no incentive to file a complaint. It can be a long and tedious process, and most do not have the time or resources to submit a complaint.

A Look at New Data

The RAND Corporation proceeded to present the Research Case for Hiring People with Criminal History Records. When considering candidates with a criminal history record, employers often weigh factors that may not yield fact-based decisions; for example, the California Fair Chance Act’s “Green Factors” illustrates unhelpful focus areas. These factors were created in 1975 and consist of the following: the type of job being applied to, the type of crime that was committed, and the time since the individual’s last conviction—there is now overwhelming evidence stating how most of these factors are not relevant.

The biggest shock factor that stunned the audience was the revelation that the type of crime committed is not a predicting factor. It cannot indicate:

  • Whether the person will be convicted of another crime
  • The type of crime the person will be convicted of next. Criminology research shows that people with multiple convictions are generalists (they don’t specialize in particular crime)

Therefore, while employers, landlords, and government agencies prioritize the type of crime, its inclusion in the Fair Chance Act cannot be justified by recidivism research.

Shawn Bushway, a RAND Senior Policy Researcher and author of this study, offered key findings to making more accurate and equitable hiring decisions. He underscored the fact that people without a record do not have 0% risk of conviction and highlighted the fact that there are more reliable predictors of future convictions that can be quantified into weighted scales.

The event served a preliminary introduction to a new idea: the value of leveraging weighted scales for fair chance hiring. Developing weighted scales requires expertise, employer commitment and investment, and it must be done through an equitable lens. Through this project, together with RAND and Arnold Ventures, we aim to bring in advocates and industries to work together and increase hiring and gainful employment for those with criminal history records.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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