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This algorithm could make it easier for over 73 million Americans to get jobs

One in three Americans has some sort of criminal background. But even convictions for minor offenses can keep them from getting jobs if the employer isn’t using a nuanced approach to vetting.

This algorithm could make it easier for over 73 million Americans to get jobs
[Source images: bagotaj/iStock; aelitta/iStock]
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Zuleyka Strasner is one of those few business owners who saw her startup Zero Grocery grow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Strasner, Zero’s founder and CEO, says that the Bay Area-based delivery company grew by 200% week-over-week when stay-at-home orders were issued in California in mid-March. That the company aims to reduce waste from unnecessary packaging was a bonus for shoppers who didn’t want to risk exposure from reusable containers.

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But to address the additional demand, Strasner had to hire more people—fast. Standing in the way of tapping a talent pool was the fact that many solid applicants also had criminal records. Fortunately, Strasner knew where to find a solution.

Back in December, she’d heard about R3 Score, a Baltimore-based tech startup founded by a Black mother-daughter team Teresa Hodge and Laurin Leonard. Hodge says Strasner “mentioned that roughly 50% of all applicants had some [sort of a record] and if she had greater context she could move forward.”

Currently, more than 73 million Americans have some sort of a criminal history, and that is expected to increase to more than 100 million over the next decade. “The FBI considers anyone who has been arrested on a felony charge to have a criminal record, even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction,” says Hodge. That averages out to be one out of every three citizens, according to Politifact.

Despite this, Hodge notes that most employers still run a background check on job candidates. “Roughly nine out of 10 employers run some version of a criminal report,” she says. However, when a report is returned to the employer and criminal history is present, employers don’t know what to do with this new information. “A candidate that was once in the selection process can suddenly find themselves disqualified based on something as minor as a booking several years prior,” says Hodge, who herself served a 70-month federal prison sentence for a nonviolent crime.

Background checks are a static snapshot of the past and do not take into consideration who a person is in the present.”

Teresa Hodge
Hodge says that even if you were convicted of a crime, it doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being able to be a great employee. In a paper she and Leonard wrote for the Harvard Kennedy School on mass incarceration, they state: “The phrase ‘if you do the crime, you do the time’ speaks to the core value that your time removed from society is the punishment, and upon release, you are to be restored into good standing.” But imagine your career still hanging in the balance of a checked box on an application that asks: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? “Background checks are a static snapshot of the past and do not take into consideration who a person is in the present, let alone how legitimate or justified their ‘criminal record’ may be.”

The goal for building R3 Score, as Hodge sees it, was to provide detail and context for employers to make a more informed decision. Otherwise criminal records can shut a talented person out of a job (or from getting a checking account or a lease) for even the slightest offense. You could see how this would cut the chances that a formerly incarcerated individual could make their life stable and become self-sufficient. And without that stability, recidivism is more likely. Currently, two out of three people are arrested again within three years of getting out of prison and more than half are incarcerated again. Longitudinal studies suggest that steady employment is related to a significant reduction in criminal behavior and lowers recidivism rates.

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R3 Score works like a financial analysis tool to provide more accurate assessments of an individual’s background. A proprietary algorithm taps numerous data sources including open civic data, criminal background databases, and other sources and methodology that Hodge says “are a part of our or ‘black box.'” R3 Score then spits out a more nuanced, comprehensive picture of a candidate’s background along with a number that looks like a credit score (ranging from 300-850), so the employer can assess the risk of hiring that person.

Hodge says there are up to 11 factors that go into that black box. The risk model is strengths-based, and she says that while traditional variables like work and education can impact a score, R3 Score looks at other indicators that show a person has been consistently committed to their own future and the well-being of their community.

The cost varies per employer. Hodge didn’t disclose how many companies are using R3 Score, instead focusing on the value of offering a product that served to make the workforce more equitable. “We can’t just look at offense types to understand who should or should not get access to an opportunity today,” Hodge says. “Black, brown, and Native people are often overcharged with crimes. . . . But even something as seemingly innocuous as your zip code can result in disproportionate attention from prosecutors and judges when it comes to charges and sentencing.”

She points back to the disproportionate number of Black and brown people impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system. As a result, she says, these candidates are more likely to be harmed by a traditional background check. R3 Score can give BIPOC candidates “a leg up being assessed with us versus traditional tools,” she says.

Like any background check, the applicant needs to opt-in. “When our business customers order a new score and report they release the name and contact information of the candidate to be assessed,” explains Hodge, noting that R3 Score begins with a standard background check, so they are legally required to get candidate’s permission.

That said, it’s important to remember that criminal reports can be very subjective based on what a prosecutor or judge allows. “There is so much inconsistency with charges that employers can’t rely on that as an additional metric for vetting candidates,” says Hodge noting that 10 people with the same criminal circumstances could all be charged and sentenced differently.

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She says that while individuals who are convicted more serious offenses generally have a more challenging time getting back on their feet, the data shows that they are generally less likely to reoffend. “Some decision-makers will not want to source from this talent pool,” Hodge admits, no matter how well it works. Yet she says that many employers tell her privately that the people they hire with criminal records are some of their best employees.

Strasner, who is still adding to Zero Grocery’s gig workforce, agrees. “This is a highly capable, untapped labor force who is ready to work and is actively looking for opportunities,” she says. She believes R3 Score will be useful long after the pandemic. “This is not merely a COVID stopgap measure for us; it’s something we’re incorporating into our business for the long-term.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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