Second-chance hiring is key to successful criminal justice reform

Op-Ed by Mark Holden, Americans for Prosperity Board Member

Mark Holden, Americans for Prosperity Board Member (Photo: Americans for Prosperity)

When Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted the sentences of 527 low-level, non-violent offenders on Nov. 1, it was the largest mass commutation in U.S. history.

Now comes the hard part.

The average age of the 462 released, so far, is just a tick over 39. That means hundreds of those returning to their communities have a quarter-century or more of productive work ahead of them.

Nationally, the 650,000 people who leave incarceration each year have an unemployment rate five times the national average. That’s one reason the recidivism rate — the rate at which the formerly incarcerated commit more crimes and are returned to the system — is unsustainably high.

Second-chance hiring is the key to providing meaningful re-entry into society and, not incidentally, to keeping our communities safe and lowering recidivism rates.

A path to a successful future

Oklahoma officials had this in mind as they planned the commutation.

Ahead of the release, the state Department of Corrections conducted “transition fairs” at 28 facilities to help those about to be released connect with potential employers and other services. Nearly four dozen groups participated, including nonprofits and state agencies, as well as more than 700 inmates.

“We really want you to have a successful future,” Governor Stitt told those who were being released.

It’s a model that other states should follow because it’s good for the formerly incarcerated, good for taxpayers, and good for business.

Employers benefit by having a highly-motivated pool of job candidates who are hungry for a second chance. Communities benefit from safer streets and stronger families. And when more people go from prison to paycheck, taxpayers win, too.

Getting talent back to work

None of us wants to be judged for the rest of our lives based on what we did on our worst day.

For many of those with a record, that involved a single mistake. For millions, that single mistake was marijuana possession or driving under the influence. Perhaps it was shoplifting or having a passionate argument cross over into a fight.

Having made the mistake and paid the price, individuals are often more vigilant about remaining on the right side of the law.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, has worked with the Stand Together community, of which Americans for Prosperity is a part, on the Getting Talent Back to Work pledge, which calls on businesses and their leaders to consider hiring those with criminal backgrounds.

The pledge has been signed by organizations and businesses representing more than half the U.S. workforce.

“People who have served their time deserve the dignity of a job and we’re focused on connecting qualified talent to American employers who face a critical talent shortage,” is how Taylor describes the effort.

Reforming the criminal justice system

Oklahoma citizens and lawmakers from both parties have led the way, at some political risk, in reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

Referendums in 2016 made drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony and raised the threshold of felony property crimes to $1,000. Then, earlier this year, the legislature and governor enacted legislation that retroactively reclassified low-level drug offenses, laying the groundwork for this month’s commutation.

These smart-on-crime, soft-on-taxpayer approaches have paid off in states as diverse as Texas and New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Oklahoma officials said their commutations shaved $11.9 million off future incarceration costs for the state.

Crucial to the success of any criminal justice reform is what happens after the moral, legal and fiscal issues are settled. What happens to human beings who are given a second chance?

We should commit to solutions that provide safe communities while treating the accused and convicted fairly. Second-chance hiring is indispensable to the success of any such venture.

Mark Holden is a board member of Americans for Prosperity.

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