There may be no more light-hearted or fitting indicator of the strength of our economy than Walmart’s decision to allow its employees to wear jeans. A decade after the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, employees have become such a scarce resource that employers can no longer afford not to think outside the box. There remains, however, one group of potential employees that is consistently overlooked: individuals with a criminal record.

For the roughly one in three American adults with a criminal record, the end of a prison or probationary sentence is not the end of punishment. Thousands of laws and regulations prevent these individuals from entering all manner of professions. Even for positions they’re permitted to hold, a criminal record acts as an obstacle, making them 50 percent less likely than those without a criminal record to even receive a callback interview.

Now is an ideal time to reconsider these barriers. America’s economic conditions are bright. The unemployment rate has fallen to record low levels, with consistent job growth and one of the tightest labor markets since 2001. Making it easier to hire people with a criminal record would only add to our nation’s prosperity. The data are clear: for a safer, more prosperous America, it’s time to liberalize our hiring.

Our nation’s improved economic outlook has tempted many who previously left the labor market to re-enter the workforce, and has put upward pressure on wages as firms compete for workers. With the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, employers are facing labor shortages across the country in industries as varied as food service, health care and construction. In response, employers are rethinking what qualifies as a “red flag” for hiring. People with spotty employment histories and those who were once outside the workforce are providing a much-needed lifeline to employee-strapped companies. These individuals are finding employment opportunities that were not available to them just a few years ago.

In this economic environment, encouraging greater employment opportunities for individuals with a criminal record would be a win for society at large. Employment remains one of the most surefire ways to keep the formerly incarcerated from returning to prison. Those with a criminal record who find employment are half as likely as their unemployed counterparts to end up back in prison. Additionally, these individuals have the potential to add up to $80 billion to our nation’s gross domestic product.

Given the existing barriers to productive employment for individuals with a criminal record, policy reform must be a multipronged effort. With one in four American jobs subject to an occupational license or certification, licensing reform provides an excellent place to start. Licenses often prevent individuals from participating in various occupations, including floristry and hair styling. A past conviction can disqualify an individual from receiving an occupational license even when their offense is irrelevant to the occupation they wish to enter. Furthermore, individuals with a criminal record often need to move elsewhere to find the jobs that fit them best. Reducing barriers to geographic mobility, such as by harmonizing licensing requirements across state lines or making state licenses portable, would also help these individuals successfully re-enter the labor market.

It’s not just our policymakers who need to change, however; the private sector also needs to rethink its hiring practices. Upfront application questions about criminal history can dissuade qualified candidates from applying to jobs and cause hiring managers to miss out on potentially great employees. Employers should be more judicious in using biometric requirements – such as name-based background checks and fingerprints – for new hires, given that they can present an inaccurate or incomplete picture of a candidate’s background.

These kinds of simple reforms would provide a hedge against the next economic downturn. While there is some risk that individuals with a criminal record may be one of the first cohorts targeted for layoffs during a recession, they will be more insulated from the worst effects of a recession if they are employed at the outset, as it is generally easier to find new employment when one is already employed. Expanding economic opportunity for these individuals now will make it less likely they will be thrown out of work when the next recession comes. As such, employing these individuals will increase our odds of reaping the public safety and economic benefits for years to come.

As American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks argues, “The quintessential model of American entrepreneurship isn’t about making it from the middle to the top. It’s about making it from the bottom to the middle.” Only by reducing barriers to meaningful work can we afford individuals with a criminal record the opportunity to improve their economic prospects. To do otherwise would be a missed opportunity to harness the talents of people trying to get their lives back on track during one of the best moments to do so.


Image credit: QualityHD


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