Redemption & Second Chances: Eliminating Employment Barriers for Previously Incarcerated Individuals

Every year over 700,000 people return home from prison and jail, looking for an opportunity to rebuild their lives and put the past behind. But although they have paid their debt to society and served their time, they are often denied the opportunity for redemption and turned away from legitimate employment, which would help them become productive members of society and increase the quality of life, not only for these individuals and their families, but for communities as a whole.

Providing opportunities for successful reentry of previously incarcerated people is no longer a problem this country can ignore. Today, the United States has nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, giving it the ranking of the world’s number one nation in incarceration. In fact, this country is home to 5% of the world population, but 25% of its prisoners.  And the epidemic of mass incarceration impacts communities of color at a disproportionate rate. African Americans are 13% of the U.S. population, but make up 40% of its prisoners. People of color make up two-thirds of those behind bars.

And nearly 95% of all those who go to prison or jail are released back to local communities across the country. Sadly, due to a variety of reasons including lack of opportunity and numerous barriers to reentry, nearly two-thirds of those who return home are likely to reoffend and cycle back into the criminal justice system. This not only serves the continued destabilization of communities and families – not to mention the further deterioration of the lives of returning individuals – it is also a costly phenomenon that wastes billions of dollars, funds that can be used to provide education, create jobs, and invest in other social institutions to help strengthen this country’s most marginalized and impoverished communities – which would ultimately help uplift the U.S. economy as a whole. In fact, studies show that employed individuals are more than one-third less likely to recidivate and cycle back into the prison system.

Over the last decade, human rights, civil rights, labor and other advocates have mounted a campaign to remove employment barriers for previously incarcerated people. In a movement commonly referred to as “ban the box” – referring to removing the box/question inquiring about criminal records, at least from the initial stage of the job application process – some progress has been made. In addition to national policies directed at banning employment discrimination, many states have enacted laws to protect employment rights of people with criminal records.

These efforts have been supported by various legal protections, such as the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as guidelines put forward by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), both of which prohibit employers from using blanket bans to deny job opportunities to individuals with criminal records. EEOC regulations require that any restrictions should be directly job related and that employers make employment decisions about applicants with criminal history on a case-by-case basis, allowing applicants to prove rehabilitation and explain the circumstances surrounding their past. But despite these policies, many public and private employers continue to unduly maintain employment barriers that deny opportunities to those returning home from prison or jail.

With a projected 1.5 million jobs that will be available in waste diversion by 2030  and  4 million jobs to be offered in the energy efficiency/clean energy sector, as well as other employment opportunities in the sustainability sector, the green economy offers an abundance of potential avenues for preventing people from  entering the criminal justice system by offering alternatives -- as well as providing viable options for formerly incarcerated persons who are looking to rebuild their lives.  Bridging the Gap: Connecting Black Communities to the Green Economy, an NAACP organized pre-conference occurring in Washington, DC on Monday, April 15th,preceding the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference,will explore how to optimize collaboration between the intersecting movements for economic justice, environmental and climate justice, and justice for formerly incarcerated persons. Together, we can pave pathways and provide options to ensure that all persons have equal access to opportunities for a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.