According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 10,000 offenders are released from state and federal prisons each week. This means that, on a weekly basis, 10,000 individuals will be re-entering our communities, many without jobs or other sources of income.
Employing ex-offenders makes communities safer; a study conducted by The Manhattan Institute found that ex-offenders who quickly gained employment during re-entry were 20 percent less likely to reoffend than those who remained unemployed. And the likelihood of ex-offenders finding work increases if they are not required to report prior convictions to a prospective employer from the outset. Applicants without felony convictions are 63 percent more likely to receive an interview than those with criminal histories.
Fortuitously, fostering job creation and spurring economic development will be a priority for the New Mexico Legislature this session. To advance this goal, lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez have an obligation to take a fresh look at measure Senate Bill 78 from last session.
SB 78 would have directly addressed the hiring disparity between ex-offenders and the general public by establishing a level playing field for all applicants at the initial phase of hiring. Importantly, the bill would not have prohibited employers from performing a background check or other research on potential employees as the hiring process continued. Instead, it would have required a private employer to consider “an applicant’s conviction after review of the applicant’s written application and upon discussion of employment” — giving applicants a chance to explain convictions or irregular work histories. Urging holistic review of applications would encourage private employers to consider qualified ex-offenders, which would protect ex-offenders from immediate discrimination while helping New Mexico’s employers find people to hire.
In her veto letter last session, Gov. Martinez voiced concern that SB 78 would limit private employers’ rights and that individualized review of applicants, including ex-offenders, would waste private employers’ time. While we should certainly be sensitive to maintaining the independence enjoyed by private employers, encouraging them to engage in inclusive hiring practices would actually benefit those same employers. Applicants with certain qualities unrelated to one’s criminal history — like career accomplishments, holistic work history and positive relationships with peers — might be overlooked if employers are wary of hiring ex-offenders from the get-go. If private employers were to embrace broader review parameters with individualized assessment, they would benefit from a more diverse pool of applicants.
Notably, neither apprehension vocalized by Gov. Martinez represents the concerns expressed by employers. A 2017 study published by Criminology and Public Policy found that protection and safety were private employers’ primary concerns for criminal history inquiries. Yet removing the initial criminal history question and allowing applicants to articulate and demonstrate their trustworthiness could ameliorate any uneasiness experienced by private employers.
Post-conviction career reform is necessary to help millions of Americans with criminal records find sustainable work. Currently, thousands of New Mexicans are being overlooked for employment regardless of educational qualifications or technical skills, with hundreds more being added each year. That hurts both workers and employers, not to mention society at large.
Encouraging private employers to consider applicants on a case-by-case basis, to factor in professional references, to weigh the type of job the individual is applying for and then to consider the element of a prior criminal conviction would promote the interests of ex-offenders, employers and the community.
Image credit: Pukhov K 
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