The national nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF) has launched a new initiative that aims to mobilize companies to help people with criminal records re-enter the workforce and secure meaningful employment.
JFF's Center for Justice and Economic Advancement (CJEA) will work with employers to expand fair-chance hiring programs and advocate for policy change to eliminate barriers to employment for people with criminal backgrounds.
"[The] Center for Justice and Economic Advancement is a vehicle for bringing together multiple stakeholders to … set a vision for economic mobility for people with records," said Lucretia Murphy, the center's executive director.
JFF will collaborate with organizations and institutions that provide job-related training to ensure people with criminal records have access to and are successful in programs that equip them with the skills and credentials needed for employment.
Through the initiative, JFF will also work with partners to build a career navigation "ecosystem" that allows people with criminal records to chart their path to employment, Murphy said.
"Our partnership network of programs that do work directly with people returning from incarceration is robust," Murphy said. "If someone were to reach out to us directly, we would connect them to local organizations to the extent that we can."
The CJEA is a collaboration between JFF and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit that develops research-driven strategies to increase public safety and strengthen communities. The program received a two-year planning grant of $6 million from the Justice and Mobility Fund to support its mission.
During that time, JFF will implement programmatic work such as supporting employer networks, offering technical assistance to colleges and universities, providing post-secondary education in prisons, and developing a policy framework and briefs.
"We are committed to do this work with people who are directly impacted by the criminal system, both young people and adults," Murphy said. "We are working closely with and following the leadership of directly impacted leaders and want these leaders to be able to use [the] CJEA's emerging platform to amplify their existing work."
The CJEA launches as more than 650,000 former offenders are released from prison nationwide each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That is more people than there are citizens of Wyoming.
Many of these individuals enter the job market, but few land jobs. About 75 percent of people released from prison remain unemployed a year later, according to a report by the nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union.
Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland, believes many employers harbor preconceived notions about people with criminal records, which prevents this population of workers from securing employment.
"We live in a society that portrays people in a certain way that isn't true," he explained. "That untruth drives fear into people. [Employers] say it's a risk."
At 18, Chrostowski was jailed for fleeing from police during a drug-related incident. Upon his release, he was given a second chance when a chef in Detroit helped him develop his culinary skills. This led to Chrostowski enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he earned an associate degree in culinary arts and a bachelor's degree in business and restaurant management.
Chrostowski now runs a program focused on preparing former prisoners for careers in hospitality. The program equips these individuals with basic culinary skills and helps them find employment.
He implores employers to give individuals with criminal records the second chance that he was given.
"Get to know us," he said. "Have a conversation; have a dialogue. Get to know somebody with themselves, their past. It will go a long way."
A Commitment to Diversity
Chrostowski said hiring people with criminal records shows a true commitment to diversity.
"When you talk about diversity in the world, you often talk about someone's perspective of the economics of the world, or of a culture," he explained. "There's a perspective of people coming out of prison, and it's a powerful one of reflection, understanding oneself, of empathy. It offers you a rich perspective that only comes through your experiences."
Several lawmakers are encouraging states to implement "ban-the-box" policies, which would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history before an offer of employment is made. This would reduce discrimination and potentially increase job security for applicants with criminal histories.
Murphy said being a fair-chance employer isn't easy because it requires a comprehensive change to not just hiring practices but also organizational culture. However, she explained that companies with strong diversity, equity and inclusion practices can enhance their culture by hiring people with criminal records.
"But this work not only benefits people with records," she said. "It is good for all employees."
The SHRM Foundation's "Getting Talent Back to Work" initiative helps to build bridges and reduce barriers to employment for people with criminal records by equipping employers with the resources, tools and case studies needed to attract, hire and retain these workers.