Hiring Ex-Felons: A Trend to Watch? 21 Jul 2017


Exigent circumstances have led to a radical way of addressing a labor shortage in at least one coastal state this summer.

Last month, Maine Governor Matt LePage began commuting the state prison sentences for non-violent offenders, starting with male inmates and soon to include both sexes. His administration is also reviewing whether he is legally allowed to commute the sentences of county inmates.

LePage, normally a hard-liner on criminal issues, says he is trying to solve the demographically aging state’s mounting labor problem, where unemployment is three percent (3%) even as the summer tourist season gets into full swing. Adding further to the shortage in a state that borders Canada, there’s also been a drop in the number of available H-2B visas, which cover seasonal nonagricultural workers.

“The tourist industry is struggling, …can’t find enough workers,” the Governor says. The released offenders will be required to find jobs or job training.

Is it a trend?

Notwithstanding Maine’s unique demographic problems, is this a trend? Other states, like Texas, have also moved to reduce prison populations of low-level offenders. They try to reintegrate them into society through job training and hiring programs.

The reasoning is that a straight path to a good job can replace the need to commit theft once someone has been rehabilitated and done time for past mistakes. And, of course, it increases the supply of trained labor. If these programs work in some states, others with overcrowded prisons and under-supplied workforces will no doubt take notice.

How a thorough background check helps

As an employer, you may reside in a state that’s already “banned the box” on job application forms, but it’s still routine to do a criminal background check once an applicant advances to finalist status. Routine background checks, though, don’t always give you the information you need to make a good hiring decision.

Through professional employment background screening risk assessment and management, you can overcome the DYI obstacles associated with hiring newly released ex-felons.

Professional background screening firms combine human search techniques with every type of electronic criminal database, from every type of jurisdiction, to give you a comprehensive picture that a normal electronic scan of state-level records often misses. They compile information from both electronic and primary research data sources.

Some, like Trusted Employees, have an extensive network of county court research professionals located throughout the United States. The results are complete and actionable county-level information based on a look-back time span you select.

What if an ex-felon is otherwise the best candidate for the job?

Assuming it’s consistent with your organization’s policy and the job itself is a low-risk position that doesn’t expose them to access or temptation for bad behavior, discovering a recent criminal history or early release from prison doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic rejection. It could also be seen as an opportunity to help a well-meaning individual build a more productive life for themselves.

Still, as an HR professional or hiring manager, you may not feel comfortable making that judgment call on your own.

Risk assessment is another area where professional background screening services can help support your decision making.

Being naturally risk-averse, most employers would just as soon not hire ex-offenders. They see the potential for workplace violence or theft, negligent hiring liability, and public relations nightmares. Because current law places the burden on employers to evaluate any risk that a particular ex-offender poses on the job, but gives them few tools with which to make that evaluation, employers would rather err on the side of caution and turn ex-offenders away.

Risk assessment tools based on commonly accepted criminal profiling standards and statistical probabilities are included with many professional employment screening services (including ours). Going down this checklist means you don’t have to agonize or rely exclusively on your own judgment where you may have little or no training.

Prison Officials can play a larger role in risk assessment, too

A background screening service and assessment checklist are a big help, but certain policy changes could help even further.

Some criminal lawyers have suggested that it’s unfair to place the entire risk assessment burden on employers and HR managers. They see a larger role for corrections departments, who not only are implementing more and more skilled job training inside the prisons but are also in a far better position, with better access to information to evaluate a particular ex inmate’s readiness to perform well in a job.

Rather than leaving decisions to the fear, discrimination, and avoidance of liability that drives our current system of risk evaluation by employers, these advocates say a stronger partnership between employers and corrections officers can result in better job success rates overall.

Federal Incentives for hiring felons

Another factor to consider in the mix: the U.S. Department of Labor offers employers a tax incentive for hiring recently released felons, identical to the one offered for hiring veterans. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit ranges from $1,200 to $9,600, depending on the employee hired.

Additionally, there is a Federal Bonding program which may provide the employer with a short term liability bond ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 at no cost. These bonds are designed to protect employers from the possibility of theft or dishonesty on the part of an ex-felon.

The positive PR value of hiring rehabilitated felons

When employers provide an opportunity to return to work and rebuild their lives, they’re not only gaining the loyalty of the ex-convict, but of that person’s family, multiple connected organizations, and other groups of people, through word of mouth alone.

While an ex-felon may be out of prison, that doesn’t mean they’re not being checked on. Residents assigned to work releases or on probation are almost always given random drug testing, are consistently checked on, and in some cases, are even attending counseling or some form of therapy.

One assumption about background checks is that they exist to find candidates with a criminal record and eliminate them from the hiring process. But in reality, background screening companies should strive to provide their clients with all of the necessary information to make smarter hiring decisions. If a high-skilled ex-felon scores low on a risk assessment matrix, you’ll know better how to decide.

In some – though certainly not all – cases, it makes sense to look beyond the stigma of being a felon, and carefully weigh the potential positives of hiring an ex-convict. As a background screening company, it is not our policy to render advice on what to decide. Our job is to give you the best tools and insights to make the call yourself, with confidence.

Trusted Employees offers comprehensive criminal records history services, from local to international levels. You can find more information about them here.