Job seekers with criminal histories a large portion of talent pool, research says

ALBANY – The country’s labor shortage continues to bother businesses, but one professor from the University at Albany has offered a solution – give people with criminal records a chance.

Shawn Bushway, a public administration and policy professor at the school, is conducting national research with the Rand Corporation looking at how many of the unemployed have criminal records and face restrictions in entering the workforce at a time when there’s a gaping hole in it.

He and researchers found unemployed men with criminal histories account for an astounding percentage of potential workers while studying a national survey collected by the Labor Department in 1997.  They concluded that about 64 percent of unemployed men in America were arrested by age 35 and about 46 percent were convicted. 

According to the study, these rates slightly varied by race and ethnicity, too, leading them to deduce that for employers, selecting a white candidate over a Black candidate won’t change the odds of hiring someone with a record when choosing from a pool of unemployed subjects.

Bushway said the rate at which men have records or rapsheets is higher among those who are unemployed than it is for the general population. The same was true of women, and he noted there’s “plenty of anecdotal evidence” suggesting a causality between unemployment and criminal records. His team determined that employers today may be more inclined to consider people with criminal records despite traditionally being overly cautious because of the tight labor market.

Often employers are too cautious when considering prospective hires with records because they fear taking on someone who may do something harmful on the job or potentially getting hit with a negligent hiring lawsuit, Bushway explained.

“They end up not hiring because they’re very concerned about that, rightfully so. I’m not saying hire everybody who has a record, but there are plenty of people that would make perfectly good employees,” he said.

Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, said formerly incarcerated individuals could make up such a part of the workforce that they shouldn’t be overlooked. 

When employers allow the fear of risks to affect their hiring practices it creates more barriers for these people on top of the lost time, skill-building and trauma they must face. 

And Bushway pointed out that the lack of chances given to them could cause some to commit additional crimes since they can’t support themselves or their families. Employers have a tendency to categorize them all into a group although research indicates the risk of being a repeat offender is “quite low” for many.

“There’s needs to be a balancing (act) and in my opinion, the current balancing is out of whack,” he said.

Scaife said there could be more prison programs geared toward education, certifications and apprenticeships that allow people to have  credentials for their re-entry into the workforce. Some initiatives are already in place in the forms of tax incentives and bonding programs that governments offer employers, although there is room for more.

Bushway offered New York as an example, a state trailblazing such efforts by implementing policies that cut down barriers including the requirement for employers to do personalized assessments of candidates that look beyond criminal records. 

The Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region has created a workforce that intentionally recruits those with criminal backgrounds.

Alliance executive director Harris Oberlander said once the organization put in career development supports to help their employees carry out their functions, it made their workforce stronger.

Oberlander urges other employers to intentionally seek out these individuals because while others struggle to find employees, his company base is stronger as a result. And he emphasized liability shouldn’t be a concern because there’s a risk with any candidate, whether or not they have a criminal history.

“The people that we hire have paid their debts to society, they have made a turn in their lives and are ready to be a part of the workforce,” he said. 

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