Employment of ex-offenders, employer perspectives
Sponsored by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, Conducted by the Crime & Justice Institute.
Employment fills a vital need for most individuals; it provides income, social connection, and feelings of societal contribution and self worth. For exoffenders returning to the community after a period of incarceration, employment can make the difference between succeeding and returning to prison. Research shows that employment is associated with reduced
Yet ex-offenders face significant barriers to employment after release from prison. Barriers include employer attitudes toward individuals with criminal records, legal barriers, educational and financial obstacles, substance abuse and health issues, and lack of stable housing. While employment is critical to ex-offenders’ successful reintegration, prospective employers have their own set of interests when considering whether to hire an ex-offender.
To gain a better understanding of employers’ views about hiring ex-offenders, the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) conducted a review of the national research literature and held four focus groups with 28 employers in the greater Boston area. Drawing from various industries, the focus groups were divided between employers that had hired ex-offenders and those that had not. At the end of the project, CJI re-convened the project advisory group, along with other practitioners and policymakers, to review the focus group findings and provide recommendations and next steps for inclusion in this report.
As research by Harry Holzer has shown, employers are more reluctant to hire ex-offenders than any other disadvantaged group. Employers are concerned that ex-offenders lack skills and work history and may not be trustworthy. They fear liability for negligent hiring. Employers’ willingness to hire exoffenders is also influenced by the type of industry and position, the type and severity of crime committed by the job applicant, and work experience since release from prison. In many states, the easy availability of criminal history data may also present a barrier to employment.
Massachusetts Focus Group Findings
Employers’ primary interest is their business, its customers, and employees. Most employers reported that a hiring decision depends on the individual circumstances of each case, including the type of job and the specific factors in the applicant’s history. For instance, an employer in financial services would not hire someone with a history of embezzlement, and employers in
health services were not likely to hire someone with a drug conviction—especially if they might have access to medications. Employers indicated that a candidate with a criminal history is generally going to be less attractive than one without, so ex-offenders have more obstacles to overcome. In particular, many employers did not want to be the first to employ a recently released offender; rather they were more comfortable considering someone who had already established a positive track record after release. Completion of transitional employment was described by some as “evidence of rehabilitation.”
The three support services and incentives that employers rated as having the most positive impact on hiring were: completion of a transitional employment program after release, general work readiness training, and specific job skills training. Although employers consider technical skills to be important in the selection process, they reported non-technical (“soft”) skills as being most important. These soft skills include good communication and interpersonal skills, ability and willingness to learn, attention to detail, reliability, and showing up for work on time.
Most employers are unaware of the tax incentives, bonding programs, and intermediary organizations currently in place to facilitate employment of returning offenders. Employers generally seem interested in the support systems that seek to bridge the gap between ex-offenders and prospective employers, but need to know more about the programs and how they fit with their needs. Although many employers would like to give a qualified ex-offender a second chance, they are averse to taking risks that they feel could threaten their workplace or reputation. Over half of participating employers rated greater protection from legal liability as having a very positive impact on their likelihood of hiring an ex-offender; however, many are also skeptical that this could be effectively implemented. Moreover, some employers feel that protection of reputation and client base is of even greater concern than legal liability.
In spite of the numerous barriers to employment of ex-offenders, there is reason for some degree of optimism. Employers who had hired ex-offenders reported mostly positive experiences. For example, one employer who had employed inmates from a pre-release center indicated that they were some of his best workers, in part because they were closely monitored, eager for the chance to work, and motivated to succeed. Moreover, employers reported that various support services and incentives would have a favorable effect on hiring.
Recommendations for Improvement
Our interviews with employers and union representatives suggest that the following strategies could help alleviate some employer concerns and foster better connections between employers
• Provide structured transitional employment opportunities so that exoffenders can build positive work experience and references upon release from prison;
• Increase and strengthen training in both soft and hard skills, and create more partnerships with employers to match technical training with their industry needs; and
• Create a marketing campaign to educate employers about how and where to hire qualified ex-offenders, available government incentives, and successes experienced by employers that have hired ex-offenders. When project advisors and other stakeholders were presented with the findings of this study and asked which issues were most important and feasible to address, they recommended that Massachusetts make skill enhancement a top priority. In particular, the group felt that offenders should begin to develop soft skills while incarcerated and continue their training after release when those skills are most needed.
• Other high priorities that advisers felt were feasible to address include education and marketing outreach to employers and provision of basic tools for ex-offenders, such as identification and social security cards.