“Would you rather pay someone $30,000 to do a job, or pay $30,000 to keep someone in jail?” That was the question posed to me by Dan Meyer, CEO of Nehemiah Manufacturing. The Cincinnati-based manufacturer of consumer products has pursued the former option, hiring dozens of employees with past criminal records. The national dialog on the U.S. justice system largely focuses on sentencing reforms, but proposed changes will be fruitless if those with criminal records have no job opportunities and no recourse but to return to illegal activities. Nehemiah and others are pioneers in developing paths for “second-chancers” or “returning citizens” (those who have been released from prison) to lead productive and meaningful lives.
Firms that focus on integrating those with criminal pasts are rare. To better understand the obstacles they face, I have spent time with Nehemiah and two other enterprises that have overcome the challenges of employing second chancers. All three firms operate in different geographies and produce different products and services. Nehemiah manufactures household products; Sweet Beginnings of Chicago operates apiaries, honey-infused skincare products and raw urban honey under the beelove ™ brand; and the King’s Kitchen offers upscale Southern cuisine in the heart of Charlotte. Despite the differences, there is a striking similarity to the models of success they have created.
All three employers emphasized that simply being willing to hire a second chancer is not enough. An employer must be committed to the particular needs of these workers. To address this issue, each firm partners with nonprofits to offer a support ecosystem to meet the challenges inherent in this labor pool, including poverty, lack of access to transportation and struggles with addiction. While Nehemiah relies on the services of independent nonprofits like Cincinnati’s City Gospel Mission, Sweet Beginnings operates within the nonprofit North Lawndale Employment Network, and the King’s Kitchen is similarly linked to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Dream Center.
America has long been a land of second chances, but the millions of citizens with criminal pasts are often cheated of the opportunity to return to lives of meaning and contribution. There always has been a moral imperative to help such citizens reclaim their lives, but to that we should add the economic imperative. The cost and lost potential of failing to reintegrate second chancers comes at a time when the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8 percent and businesses struggle to fill openings while outsourcing abroad and immigration may no longer be politically acceptable alternatives. Expanding the viable labor pool to include those with prison pasts represents a largely untapped opportunity for our economy. Assimilating such second chancers into the labor force not only would extend our business expansion, but also would broaden the benefits of this growth to individuals and communities that have been painfully excluded.
This piece was excerpted and updated from an article on LinkedIn by Jeff Korzenik. For the full text, visit LinkedIn.
This post is part of a series for Second Chance Month, which highlights the need to improve re-entry for citizens returning to society and reduce recidivism. One of the primary ways to do this is by providing an opportunity for gainful employment. To sign the pledge and access the toolkit with information on how to create second chances at your company, visit GettingTalentBacktoWork.org.