Time for businesses to take the second step for prison reform

Time for businesses to take the second step for prison reform
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This past December, President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE signed into law the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act — also known as the First Step Act. This legislation represents a powerful bipartisan commitment to federal criminal justice reform. Following the passage of the First Step Act, there has been significant praise for political leaders and calls for Congress to take this legislation further. Not only should we be looking to Congress to continue the progress made by this legislation, but most especially, we must look to the business sector to take the critical “second step” that can make the difference between success or failure of this act.

The First Step Act advances a number of initiatives within federal prisons to enhance people’s reentry into society after their release from prison. These initiatives include job training and counseling while incarcerated, the expansion of early-release programs for prisoners earning this privilege, and the release of prisoners closer to their home communities. The legislation also provides for reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and the re-evaluation of sentencing disparities associated with crack and powder cocaine offenses.

While these are all steps in the right direction, the people affected by the First Step Act must now prepare to reenter their communities — which is no easy task. They will need to rebuild relationships, find housing, and perhaps most importantly, find employment.


Numerous studies show that stable employment for individuals with criminal records is critical to reentry after incarceration and reduces the likelihood of them committing additional crimes. This ultimately contributes to safer and stronger communities, and is exactly where the business community needs to address important issues.

Unfortunately, former prisoners face serious barriers in trying to find employment. Given the stigma associated with having a criminal record, many employers may be concerned about protecting their reputation. Another major obstacle is that some organizations have human resource practices that essentially screen out individuals with criminal records. Additionally, many people who were incarcerated for long periods of time may not have the education or skills employers are looking for. Now the question remains: what can be done to address these issues?

The business sector will have to become more proactive in opening job opportunities to the formerly incarcerated.

One place to begin is by removing existing barriers to employment like restrictive hiring practices. A number of large corporations like Walmart, Home Depot, Target, and Koch Industries, have actively advocated for the passage of Ban the Box legislation. This legislation, currently adopted by thirty-three states, restricts employer criminal background checks until an applicant for a job opening meets the basic criteria for the job. These laws also prohibit employers from automatically or categorically excluding individuals with a criminal record from consideration before determining they are otherwise qualified for the position.


Beyond removing barriers to employment, the First Step Act provides an impetus to more actively pursue this often overlooked and untapped market for employees. There are good reasons for businesses to take a closer look at qualified people with criminal records, particularly in a low unemployment environment where it is challenging to find candidates for hard-to-fill jobs. In fact, employers who have hired former prisoners praise their willingness to take on tough jobs and work hard, often as a way to express their gratitude for being given a second chance and to demonstrate their loyalty and value to the organization. These employers highlight the importance and satisfaction of helping people with criminal records rebuild their lives and reintegrate successfully into society.

One promising strategy adopted by a number of employers open to hiring the formerly incarcerated is partnering with local and national re-entry organizations to identify candidates with the best potential for hiring. These organizations work directly with people with criminal records to provide them with essential services like housing assistance and critical skills training for employment. There are outstanding regional organizations, including Pioneer Human Services and Interaction Transition in Washington state, Project H.O.P.E. in Alabama, The Last Mile and BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency) in California, and organizations like CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) with branches throughout the country.

The business community must consider the vital role it can play in helping fulfill the promise of this landmark act by employing the formerly incarcerated.

Now is the time to take this second step and make a positive impact — not only on those released from prison, but also on businesses, communities, and the nation.

Jerry Goodstein, Ph.D., is a professor at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.