The Prison Fellowship, a faith-based nonprofit serving U.S. prisoners, former prisoners and their families, launched the first Second Chance Month back in 2017. The monthlong campaign — including rallies, events, petitions and social media engagements — aimed to challenge the stigma of criminal justice involvement and champion second chance hiring, housing and other opportunities.
Thanks to their advocacy, Second Chance Month is now observed nationally every April, with successive White House proclamations over the past six years. So, what are second chance policies, and why are they necessary? Let's take a closer look and explore how major U.S. businesses are getting involved.
A crisis of justice and a missed opportunity
Anywhere from 1.7 million to more than 2 million people sit in U.S. prisons and jails at any given time. America's growing carceral system tears families apart and sends ripple effects across the economy and society, with communities of color being most affected: Though the U.S. population is roughly 13 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic, Black and Brown people make up about half of those imprisoned.
After decades of mass incarceration, approximately 1 in 3 U.S. adults now has a criminal record that would appear on a routine background screening. Even after serving their sentences, those with criminal justice histories are often turned away by employers, locked out of housing, and deemed too high-risk for loans and other financial services. In over a dozen U.S. states, they can never vote again.
Though over 650,000 people come home from prison each year, more than half are unemployed a year later, increasing the likelihood they’ll return.
Second chance hiring takes hold across corporate America
Second chance hiring can take many forms. For example, an employer may remove the checkbox on job applications that requires a person to disclose their criminal justice history, or stop considering criminal justice involvement as a disqualifying factor in the application process. While these concepts are not new — the "ban the box" campaign to remove the disclosure checkbox from first-round applications first started in the 1990s — they've garnered increasing attention from the U.S. business community over recent years.
The Second Chance Business Coalition, for example, launched last year to empower companies with the tools, relationships, and expertise to advance career and economic opportunities for the more than 70 million Americans with criminal records. Its membership has grown to nearly 50 large U.S. employers, from Gap and Ralph Lauren to Visa, NBCUniversal and Allstate.
Likewise, the recently formed Workforce and Justice Alliance brings businesses together to remove workforce barriers for justice-impacted individuals across the U.S. Formed by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), an international nonprofit that works with companies to champion criminal justice reform, the Alliance also includes leadership from Mod Pizza — an early champion of second chance hiring policies.
For corporate members like these, second chance hiring just makes sense. Such high levels of caging and incarceration have effectively boxed tens of millions of people out of the labor force — increasing rates of poverty, recidivism and community fragmentation at a time when companies need workers more than they have in decades.
"Second chance hiring is increasingly seen by employers as a common-sense solution to tackle ongoing labor shortages," Maha Jweied, co-CEO of the RBIJ, told TriplePundit. "We also know that access to good jobs is the most important determinant in whether an individual will reoffend, so by giving deserving individuals second chances, businesses are actively making their communities safer."
Ken Oliver of Checkr, which offers solutions for fairer background checks, agrees. He joined Jweied and Shamia Lodge of CEO Action for Racial Equity at a SOCAP event in October to discuss these issues around second chance hiring and why businesses should get involved. Like Jweied, he sees second chances as a fundamental justice issue as well as an economic one.
“It’s really important from an equity standpoint to provide each and every person — whether they have a record or not — equal access to the American economy and to the middle-class economy, to help fuel decarceration and stop relying so much on punishment and really investing in people," said Oliver, executive director of the Checkr Foundation, who himself was formerly incarcerated. "We’re asking employers not to lower the bar, but to lower the barriers.”
Broad, bipartisan support for second chances
From a cultural standpoint, defining people by their past mistakes is an inherently un-American concept. Americans love second chances. They'll root for the underdog just for the sake of it and never grow tired of a good David-and-Goliath story. So, it's no surprise that second chance hiring, housing and financial policies have broad support among the U.S. public.
In a 2021 survey, 76 percent of U.S. workers said they'd feel comfortable working for an employer that hires people with criminal justice histories — and 83 percent would be happy to patronize businesses that leverage second chance hiring. A 2022 survey of small business owners also found broad support for second chances: 84 percent of respondents feel that removing criminal justice histories from applicant screenings will benefit small businesses, and nearly 80 percent agreed these policies will benefit communities.
“Enacting policies that help us tap into a larger pool of candidates only makes sense,” said John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority, which conducted the survey, in a statement. "Smaller firms widely support legislation that improves second chance hiring opportunities for justice-impacted individuals, opening the candidate pool to those eager to contribute to their local economy and community."
As we move through April, TriplePundit will take a closer look at how businesses big and small are embracing second chance hiring policies, as well as efforts to improve access to housing and financial resources for people with criminal justice histories. Watch this spot for more!
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.