The Benefits of Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated

Editorial Note: Today we have a guest contributor, Stephanie Hammerwold or the HR Hammer website. She is passionate about helping people get a 2nd chance in life. This is so important in human resources right, we need more of this.  You can read Stephanie’s bio at the end of the article. With further ado…


The Benefits of Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly one-third of working-age Americans has a criminal record. This means that employers are losing out on a large talent pool if they automatically dismiss those with a record. In fact, blanket bans against hiring those with a criminal record may violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are many myths out there about hiring the formerly incarcerated, but the reality is that many individuals with records can be a benefit to employer.

Supporting Fair Chance Hiring

People deserve a second chance. If someone has served their time, we should not continue to punish them with restrictive hiring policies that make it difficult for those with a criminal record to find employment. A criminal record is only part of a job seeker’s story, so it should not be the sole basis for rejecting a candidate. Instead we need to look at the whole candidate, which includes education, training and work experience.

Fair chance hiring (also called ban the box) refers to policies that help those with criminal records find jobs they are qualified for. A key aspect of fair chance hiring is moving questions about criminal convictions to later in the hiring process and only asking those questions when criminal background is relevant to the job. This gives candidates a chance to be evaluated based on skills and experience without worrying that their criminal record will unfairly bias a hiring manager against them.

To evaluate whether your hiring process offers a fair chance, review each of your positions and determine if criminal background is relevant to the job. If it is, what specific convictions should bar someone from the position? If you decide to consider criminal backgrounds, do so after a conditional offer has been made, and always allow candidates a chance to explain the conviction.

If you decide to run a background check, remember that reports can be inaccurate due to mistakes with names and other identifying information, so it is important that you give the candidate a chance to challenge information in the report. The Legal Action Center has a useful guide for employers who want to use criminal background checks in the hiring process.

Taking Advantage of Tax Credits

Employers can also take advantage of tax credits for hiring the formerly incarcerated. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a federal program that gives employers a tax credit for hiring qualified employees. Qualified employees include the formerly incarcerated as well as veterans, SNAP (food stamp) recipients and other difficult-to-employ groups. Tax credits range from $1,200 to $9,600. The process for taking advantage of WOTC involves several forms during the hiring process and can be managed easily by a number of companies that automate the process.

Some states also offer options for additional incentives. California, for example, offers the New Employment Credit, which rewards employers who pay livable wages in select regions of California with the highest poverty and unemployment rates. The formerly incarcerated are included as qualified employees under this program. Check with your state to see if additional credits are available in your area.

In addition to tax credits, there is a Federal Bonding program available to employers who hire the formerly incarcerated. Bonds cover at-risk, hard-to-place job seekers. The program is free for employers and employees and covers the first six months of employment.

Rebuilding Lives & Communities

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Harvard looked at what happened when the military allowed qualified people with felony criminal records to enlist. They found that not only did people with a record perform as well as those without, they often performed better. This is a good reminder that there is more to a candidate than their criminal record, so we should look at the candidate’s whole story before ruling them out on criminal record alone.

Giving fair consideration to the formerly incarcerated also helps rebuild lives and communities. Having a job can lead to a steady paycheck, which can help someone secure housing. This creates the stability necessary to reunite families and to help people become fully contributing members of their communities. Formerly incarcerated people understand the value of a job because it is not always easy for them to find employment. For this reason, they can turn out to be some of your most loyal employees.


Stephanie Hammerwold is the director and co-founder of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps women find meaningful employment following release from jail or prison. Prior to starting the nonprofit, Stephanie worked for over a decade in HR. She writes regularly on workplace and HR topics. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


Leave a Reply