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cover14By Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues

Washington, D.C. –  Texas Sen. John Whitmire joined a panel of policymakers and business executives at the White House to discuss ways in which government can help—and hinder—efforts to improve employment outcomes for people with criminal records.

Moderated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, “Pathways to Prosperity: How Public and Private Sectors Can Put People with Criminal Records to Work” highlighted corporate willingness to hire those with prior convictions, the public sector’s desire to eliminate obstacles to employment and an overall eagerness to continue the discussion in states across the country.

The event, coordinated by The White House Domestic Policy Council, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the National Reentry Resource Center, featured a roundtable moderated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, consisting of executives from small-, medium-, and large-sized businesses, including Home Depot and Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, as well as individuals from all levels of government.

“We have more than 65 million people in this country with a criminal record, and Texas has its fair share of that number,” Whitmire said. “We’re not saying a criminal record is something that should necessarily be ignored, but people shouldn’t automatically be shut out of any and all possibilities. There are plenty of people that are capable workers that have done their time and deserve a second chance.” 

According to the National Institute of Justice, in 2011, 688,384 men and women — approximately 1,885 individuals a day — were released from state or federal custody.

Many being released do come from Harris County, Bexar County, Travis County, Dallas County and the cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.8 million offenders were under community supervision by the end of 2011.

Returning to the community from jail or prison is a complex transition for most offenders, as well as for their families and communities. Upon reentering society, former offenders are likely to struggle with substance abuse, lack of adequate education and job skills, limited housing options, and mental health issues.

“This is an issue that impacts all of us,” Whitmire said. “The biggest obstacle standing between someone coming out of lock up and a successful reentry is securing a job. And if their reentry is not successful, it only makes our communities less safe.”

Congress recognized the importance of this issue by passing the Second Chance Act of 2007 (SCA). SCA provides federal grants for programs and services that work to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes. Federal grants are also provided to support research and evaluation on a variety of aspects related to offender reentry.

“We have a fiscal and moral responsibility to be more strategic in how we structure the environment that [individuals with criminal records] are returning to,” said John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and CSG Justice Center Board member. “Work is such an important piece to that.”

More than 1,650 corrections, reentry, and labor professionals across 41 states participated virtually in the event, organized by the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG Justice Center), and the National Reentry Resource Center.

The 16-member live panel also discussed barriers to connecting individuals with criminal records to employment, including the need for adequate job training. It was made up of state-level policymakers, leaders from the corrections and workforce development field, and business executives from companies such as Home Depot, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, and Tim Hortons, Inc.

Pamela Paulk, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Johns Hopkins Health System and Johns Hopkins Medicine, said her company has been successful at hiring employees with criminal records because of its “thoughtful and very intense hiring process,” which includes individualized assessments to match people to the right job.

“I have been doing this 14 years, and 5 percent of our staff—that’s one out of every 20 [people]—have a prior offense,” Paulk said, also emphasizing that there had never been a problem with any of these employees.

Others pointed to the importance of hiring and promoting based on performance and merit.

“When you get into the company … it’s your merit that will take you into different positions,” said Derek Bottoms, Vice President of Associate Relations at the Home Depot.

The event’s second roundtable featured leaders from leading nonprofit organizations and representatives of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor, who shared information on current initiatives, efforts, and resources that support the field in this area.

Sam Schaeffer, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, talked about his organization’s work with New York State in a Pay For Success project.

This initiative brings together state agencies working in corrections and community supervision, workforce development and labor, along with community-based organizations and service providers to ensure individuals returning from incarceration are matched into employment services based on their risk of reoffending and level of job readiness.