More than 600,000 people in the United States are let out of prison each year, only to find that landing a job is near impossible.
In fact, a year after they’ve gotten out, some two-thirds of these folks remain unemployed–often because of the stigma that they carry and concerns over what kinds of workers they’ll prove to be.
But where many businesses can only envision big problems among this population, others have come to discover huge pluses.
Most companies believe that those who’ve spent time locked up “might be unstable or just unemployable–and all of that is untrue,” Gretchen Peterson, the director of human resources at Dave’s Killer Bread, where about a third of its 300 employees have criminal backgrounds, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line.
My other guest, Hollywood producer turned prison-reform advocate Scott Budnick, makes the same point. With the right training, those who’ve been released from prison tend to display “a hunger and a work ethic even more than your traditional . . . employee,” says Budnick, the founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit in Los Angeles.
For both Budnick and Peterson, the idea that society would turn its back on ex-felons and leave them jobless–especially when some 70 million American adults have criminal records–makes no sense.
We should want those who’ve paid their dues “to be able to reintegrate and compete with everyone else without this scarlet letter that they’re wearing forever,” Budnick says. “That’s good for public safety. That means there’s an 80% less chance that they’re going to commit another crime. . . . That means they’re going to pay taxes.”
Says Peterson: “They’re your next door neighbor. When people can personalize that and get to know an individual, then they realize that person has made a mistake potentially, or maybe two mistakes. . . . But should they be held accountable for that for the rest of their life once they’ve served their sentence?”
At Dave’s Killer Bread–which traces its own history to 2005, when cofounder Dave Dahl was welcomed back to his family’s bakery after a 15-year prison term–myriad benefits have materialized from this philosophy.
For one thing, Peterson suggests, former felons are usually engaged and productive because they are grateful for the opportunity they’re receiving. “They’re very appreciative . . . to have stable employment,” she says.
Attracting front-line workers is also easy because DKB, as the company is known, has earned a reputation among re-entry programs and criminal justice agencies around its hometown of Milwaukie, Oregon, for being a second-chance employer. “We are never short of candidates,” Peterson says–even though it spends almost nothing on recruitment.
What’s more, she says, people who’ve been incarcerated can bring certain insights to the workplace that others lack. “It’s definitely an advantage,” Peterson says, noting how one of her colleagues is an excellent supervisor because of a high level of emotional intelligence that he honed behind bars. “He needed to be able to assess and read and listen and work with other people from all walks of life in order, really, to survive that experience,” she says.
And finally, Peterson explains, there’s this virtue: The company is a magnet for those who, like herself, want to do some good in the world. “It’s a mission,” she says. “It’s more than just baking bread.”
You can listen to my interviews with Peterson and Budnick here.
The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main.