On Labor Day: Out of Work, But Not By Choice

For more than 100 years, Americans have observed the first Monday of September as Labor Day. Dedicated to “the social and economic achievements of American workers,” the holiday serves as an annual tribute to “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of country.” But while most of us enjoy the holiday as a break from work, many re-entering society from the criminal justice system are still struggling to find employment.

Restored citizens face numerous barriers to successful re-entry, including restrictions that prevent them from qualifying for sustainable work. As Kevin Gay, CEO and founder of Operation New Hope, and Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, have pointed out, the existence of so many restrictions means that “we as a society should not be surprised that as many as half of released parolees become homeless and choose to return to a life of crime.”

Gay and Smith are no strangers to the re-entry process. Operation New Hope’s Ready4Work program in Florida provides a four-to-six-week-long course to those recently released from incarceration that offers mentorship and provides job training while helping program participants find placement. So far, the program has helped successfully transition more than 3,600 people back into their communities.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program begins earlier, while participants are still incarcerated. The program’s in-prison education teaches leadership and business skills through college-level courses and graduate school case studies. “Inmates develop a business plan and present it to real-world executives” Smith and Gay write. “They develop the skills they will need upon release to find a job or start a business and live a good life. When they are released, we provide comprehensive re-entry services in a structured environment of accountability and encouragement.” With 100 percent of graduates employed within 90 days of release, and 90 percent still employed after one year, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s recidivism rate is a startlingly low 7 percent.

Last November, the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity and Public Safety summit brought together experts and advocates for criminal justice reform in order to find the best policy solutions for implementation. At the summit, several business leaders discussed the crucial role the business community can play in ensuring successful re-entry for restored citizens. Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, began by noting that Texas spends too much money administering its prison system and gets too little in return. Hammond explained the importance of embracing probation as an alternative to incarceration in appropriate cases, thus increasing the number of people available for work.

During the same panel, Koch Companies Public Sector senior vice president and general counsel Mark Holden explained why Koch Industries has led the way on “banning the box,” or removing the question on a job application that requires prospective employees to disclose whether they’ve had a criminal conviction. He argued that because one in three adults has a criminal record, businesses fighting for the best talent effectively rule out one third of potential employees and make themselves less competitive if they decide not to hire restored citizens.

The business community has a significant opportunity to reduce recidivism, improve the lives of restored citizens, and reap the benefits of having talented employees by hiring restored citizens. As many of us celebrate a three-day weekend and enjoy our time off, we should take the time to remember those that would be grateful for the chance to work at all. It’s a point worth belaboring.

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