How have our past three presidents helped former felons

Review of how President Trump, Obama and Bush have made assisting former felons with reentry resources a priority for their administrations.

Presidents helping ex felons

In 2008, the NY Times noted that there was a shift in attitudes towards prison reform with a growing embrace for re-entry programs. Recognizing the need to reduce recidivism, politicians aligned with faith and community groups to make a difference through second chances. The Bush administration made rehabilitation a central goal of the federal justice system. In a sign of how far the pendulum had began to swing, the measure passed Congress with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. Thankfully this effort has continued with the Obama and Trump administrations. What can the formerly incarcerated, prospective employers and community supporters learn from the efforts of our past three presidents?

President Trump’s First Step Act to provide former felons with reentry programs

“Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.”

– President Donald J. Trump

According to the White House briefing on The First Step Act, The Trump Administration is committed to helping prisoners successfully rejoin society after their release. They have proposed over $500 million for programs including: reentry programs, inmate education, and occupational training programs through the Department of Justice. As well as, funding to improve employment outcomes for formerly incarcerated adults and young adults through the Department of Labor.

President Obama’s Fair Chance Business Pledge to provide former felons with access

“Now, a lot of time, [a] record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society.  It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job.  That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy.  It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed.  So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.” 

– President Barack Obama

President Obama created The Fair Chance Business Pledge. The pledge represents a call-to-action for all members of the private sector to improve their communities by eliminating barriers for those with a criminal record and creating a pathway for a second hance. Along with the pledge, Obama’s administration is promoting a rule from the Office of Personnel Management that will “ban the box,” delaying inquiries into criminal history until later in the federal hiring process. Obama’s efforts were met with eager support from many huge companies who signed with the intent to give the formerly incarcerated a second chance.

Why do former felons need the support of the president?

Around 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record — almost one in three Americans of working age. Too often, that record disqualifies individuals from being a full participant in their communities — even if they’ve already paid their debt to society. As a result, millions of Americans have difficulty finding employment. 

President George W Bush and the Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative

“America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

– President George W. Bush

President Bush announced his Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (PRI) designed to assist ex-prisoners and the communities to which they return. Building upon the Ready4Work project developed by The Department of Labor. Ready4Work provides mentoring and transition services for those re-entering society from prison through partnership with faith-based and community organizations. According to the White House, findings show that Ready4Work participants returned to prison at rates 44 percent lower than the 10.4 percent national rate of re-incarceration after one year of release.

Then secretary of Labor Elaine Chow stated, “We know that the long-term financial costs of re-incarceration far exceed the cost of reentry programs. But that isn’t even the most important reason. The heaviest cost is the loss of human dignity when people are living lives of poverty, addiction, and despair. We must — and we can — break that cycle. And faith-based and community organizations possess unique and invaluable strengths to help us reach out to those most in need.”

Helping former felons reintegrate requires a group effort

While it is difficult to find consensus on political issues, the policies of our past three presidents and bi-partisan efforts in those congresses, we can see the need to work together on this issue. Recidivism is extremely costly when the victims, damages and recurrence are tallied together. The toll of crime on families, communities and our nation as a whole is extensive. When we stop to take a look at how we treat offenders, we can join with our past three presidents in asking whether our approach to crime is making a positive impact. Through resources such as United Purpose Network, the formerly incarcerated, their families and communities can work together to unlock the keys to success.

The Fair Chance Business Pledge

second chances for felons
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In 2015, then President Obama, spoke on the impact of employment opportunities and the United States high recidivism rate. He called for a commitment to second chances through fair practices.

“Around 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record … Now, a lot of time, that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy. It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed. So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”

In response to this epidemic, the Obama Administration created The Fair Chance Business Pledge. Many of the largest companies in the United States embraced the pledge and committed to making their hiring practices more inclusive for applicants with a criminal history.

Early adopters of the Fair Chance Business Pledge

Companies that have adopted the Fair Chance Business Pledge and have taken steps to provide felons with job opportunities initially included:

  • American Airlines
  • Coca-Cola Company
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Greyston Bakery
  • The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System
  • Koch Industries
  • Georgia Pacific
  • Libra Group
  • Pepsi Co
  • Prudential Financial
  • Starbucks
  • UBER
  • Under Armour
  • Plank Industries
  • Unilever
  • Xerox

Companies and organizations interested in joining the Fair Chance Business Pledge can do so by signing up HERE.

The Fair Chance Business Pledge

“We applaud the growing number of public and private sector organizations nationwide who are taking action to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed, including individuals who have had contact with the criminal justice system. When almost 70 million Americans — nearly one in three adults — have a criminal record, it is important to remove unnecessary barriers that may prevent these individuals from gaining access to employment, training, education and other basic tools required for success in life.
We are committed to providing individuals with criminal records, including formerly incarcerated individuals, a fair chance to participate in the American economy.”

Advantages of Fair Chances for Employers

With a tight labor pool and issues with retention of good employees, organizations are finding it necessary to expand their applicant pools. Employers are finding that there are advantages to hiring ex-felons.

Unilever comments that, “Business can only truly flourish in societies and economies where human rights are respected and upheld.” As one of the first companies to adopt the ban the box policy, they no longer ask applicants to declare their criminal record prior to being interviewed. They have decided that they will not conduct criminal background checks until a contingent offer has been made to an applicant. This does not ensure hiring of all felons but it does allow them to work through the process based upon their merit.

Prudential has made a commitment to inclusive hiring practices. Additionally, they have invested nearly $50 million to support businesses and organizations who have demonstrated a commitment to inclusive hiring practices. These practices include assisting individuals with criminal backgrounds through workforce training, occupational skills training and workplace soft skills training, so that they can successfully re-enter the workforce.

Greyston Bakery spokesperson, Jonathan Halperin, shares the company vision for open hiring policies. “We create job opportunities for everyone who’s willing to work, regardless of their background, regardless of their prior criminal record. That model creates an opportunity for people who have often been excluded to become a part of the mainstream fabric of economic and cultural life in this country.” Greyston invests in opportunities through open hiring policies, on the job training and even daycare services for employees. has made a video to showcase how this small business is making a big difference:

What can organizations do to support Fair Chances?

The Fair Chance Business Pledge includes a commitment to adopting inclusive hiring practices which start with:

  • Banning the Box by delaying criminal history questions until later in the hiring process;
  • Training human resources staff on making fair decisions regarding applicants with criminal records;
  • Ensuring internships and job training are available to individuals with criminal records;
  • Using reliable background check providers to help ensure accuracy;
  • Hosting a Fair Chance and Opportunity Job Fair

Daniel Yanisse, founder of tech company Checkr, has found success working with ex-felons and is assisting companies such as DoorDash and Crisis Text Line to replicate the process. They have found that adjusting screening processes to be inline with Equal Employment Opportunity recommendations for considering nature and gravity of crimes as well as whether they apply to the work to be performed. Yanisse and counterparts typically starts the ex-offender in a temporary work program, where he or she serves in a paid, internship-like job, while management evaluates performance. Business leaders face unique challenges in the market place, finding good employees by opening their hiring practices can lead to positive results.

Advantages of hiring felons

Advantages to hiring felons
Photo by Pixabay

Richard Bronson went from being a felon to making it his life’s mission to provide job opportunities to those with criminal backgrounds. His organization 70 Million Jobs is hard at work making this vision a reality. If employers want to find competitive advantages, they must think outside of the box. By taking a chance on giving second chances when considering hiring felons, companies are finding success. Bronson and others have shared advantages to employer who take a chance on applicants with a criminal history.

Reasons employers should take a chance on hiring felons:

  1. Structure: Ex-felons have been in a system where they are used to taking and following orders
  2. Appreciation: They are in a position where they are appreciative for opportunities to improve themselves
  3. Success Rates: According to CNBC, executives say 82 percent of their ex-offender hires have been at least as successful as their average hire.
  4. Attention: They know the value of the opportunity and are careful not to mess things up
  5. Retention: Recent research has found that employees with records are retained at higher rates than those without criminal histories
  6. Recidivism: Nearly 80% of those released from jail or prison will be re-arrested within five years. Un-employment is a primary factor. People with jobs, on the other hand, almost never recidivate.
  7. Economic Impact: According to the Huffington Post, employers can make a considerable difference in transforming a criminal liability into a community asset.
  8. Inclusion: Companies such as McDonalds and Delta Airlines are hiring ex-cons as part of their inclusion strategy.
  9. Bonding: The U.S. Department of Labor provides a Federal Bonding Program which provides insurance for at-risk employees for the first six months of employment at no cost to the employee or employer
  10. Availability: With unemployment being low, many companies are struggling to recruit and retain employees, when employers open themselves to the possibility of second chances they open a whole new labor pool for their organization.
  11. Federal Tax Incentives: Through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit for employers who hire and retain ex-felons. Under this program if an employee works at least 120 hours a year, a company can claim a 25 percent tax credit of their first year’s wages and 40 percent if he or she works 400 hours.
  12. Local Tax Incentives: Philadelphia’s Fair Chance Hiring Initiative provides a cash reimbursement to employers who hire felons that have been released from prison within the past five years.
  13. Community: Hiring returning citizens tells your employees and the cities and towns in which you do business that you care about providing second chances.

Hiring felons could be a growth move for your organization.

Employers are constantly sharing their dismay at their inability to recruit workers. If as many as 1/3 of adults in the United States have a criminal record, then there is a lot of untapped potential that is being underutilized in the workplace. According to Lucius Couloute, who serves as a policy analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative, “This isn’t a problem of aspirations, it’s a structural problem involving discrimination and a lack of opportunities available to people who have been to prison.” Greyson is a bakery in New York that is at the forefront of zero discrimination through open hiring. CEO Mike Brady talks about investing in an apprenticeship program to provide employees the skills to succeed. He notes that they let a lot of people go, but they have also experienced returns, “I see the ROI is in tremendous loyalty, productivity and culture,” 

Body language is key to interview success

When we communicate with each other words are only one piece of the interaction. Our body language includes how we are sitting, eye contact and facial expression. Being mindful of these items is key to success in an interview. According to the organization Jails to Jobs, It is said that the impression you make is based just 7% on the actual words you use and 38% on the tone, pitch, volume and rate of your speech and 55% on your body posture, clothing, facial expressions and gestures.

Tips for body language interview success

We have researched various sites that provide information to job applicants. Here are some of the top recommendations for body language interview success:

  • Be professional from the time you enter the parking lot to the time you leave the premises
  • Treat everyone you meet with respect
  • Turn your cell phone is off
  • Give a second check that your clothes are straight
  • Mirror the tempo and demeanor of whomever you are addressing
  • Make a confident entrance
  • Make eye contact
  • Smile
  • Give a firm handshake, neither bone crushing nor limp fish  
  • Have your resume and paperwork ready
  • Practice good posture, sit up straight with an open chest
  • Don’t fidget with your hands
  • Calm your nervous ticks such as touching your face, chewing on nails, knuckle cracking, foot tapping, etc.
  • When using your hands to communicate, keep them in your chest area
  • Keep your eyes steady, don’t wander around the room
  • If it’s a panel interview, look at everyone, focus on the person asking the question when appropriate
  • When it is time to leave, get up confidently and calmly
  • Remember to be professional all the way until you leave the premises

7 body language tips to impress at your next interview

The job market is competitive, you want to ensure you are using body language to your advantage. Your communication is 7% words, 38% vocal elements and 55% non verbal. Don’t allow your body language to disqualify you from your interview. If you have a criminal background, body language is important. Body language will help you to regain some ground and present yourself as a confident potential employee. Felons who are reintegrating into society can find resources through groups like 70 Million Jobs and United Purpose Network to help them achieve success.

Interview body language techniques

From Felon to 70 Million Jobs

Employment opportunities for felons is good for families, victims and society

We often glamorize stories like The Wolf of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio who plays the notorious ring leader of the Stratton Oakmont, Jordan Belfort. Stratton was expelled by the NASD in 1996. Belfort was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1999. During it’s heyday, the company employed over 1,000 stockbrokers. One of these stockbrokers was Richard Bronson who shares his story in the video below. Bronson was charged with financial crimes and served two years in prison. As noted by the creators of the video, Freethink,

“While incarcerated, his eyes were opened to the inequities prisoners faced – and how daunting re-entry to society was. He decided to do something about it. He started the website 70 million jobs, with the aim of getting everyone leaving prison not only employment, but a career.”

The difficulty for felons to find a job

Finding a job can be difficult enough. Finding a job with a criminal record can seem almost impossible for most ex-felons working to reintegrate back into society. Bronson’s organization 70 Million Jobs works to be a reliable resource for those looking to improve their employment opportunities. Felons can find help with resumes and finding local job listings from companies ready to hire applicants with a criminal background. In and interview with Forbes Magazine, Bronson is asked why he believes that felon’s should be given a second chance. Richard responds,

Having lived with hundreds of men in prison, I observed that as people they were no better or worse than those I knew on the outside. Mostly, they were folks who had very few options in life, and followed the path that others around them were following.

Advantages of giving jobs to felons

In the article and on his organization’s website, Bronson notes that there are some advantages when employers take a chance on an applicant with a criminal background:

  1. Structure: Ex-felons have been in a system where they are used to taking and following orders
  2. Appreciation: They are in a position where they are appreciative for opportunities to improve themselves
  3. Attention: They know the value of the opportunity and are careful not to mess things up
  4. Retention: Recent research has found that employees with records are retained at higher rates than those without criminal histories
  5. Recidivism: Nearly 80% of those released from jail or prison will be re-arrested within five years. Un-employment is a primary factor. People with jobs, on the other hand, almost never recidivate.
  6. Bonding: The U.S. Department of Labor provides a Federal Bonding Program which provides insurance for at-risk employees for the first six months of employment at no cost to the employee or employer
  7. Tax Incentives: Employers who hire workers with criminal records can reduce their federal income tax by as much as $9,600 per employee.
  8. Community: Hiring returning citizens tells your employees and the cities and towns in which you do business that you care about providing second chances.

Providing jobs for felons reduces recidivism

Recidivism refers to the likelihood that someone who has been incarcerated for a crime will return to those circumstances. The rates of recidivism are very high. Working together at the federal, state and community level to create opportunities for ex-felons is a benefit to all in society. Groups like 70 Millon Jobs and United Purpose Network are hard at work to promote resources for recycling lives. Richard speaks to the value of investing in opportunities for those with a criminal past:

Recidivism costs cities like Los Angeles tens of billions of dollars annually, destroys lives and families, erodes society, to say nothing of the impact on the new victims. We think that progressive cities and states are recognizing the economics of recidivism and are looking for business solutions. That’s our big opportunity over time. Employment is the silver bullet.

What federal student aid is available for felons?

Education and student aid are keys to felons moving forward
Photo by Pixabay

A felon is a person who has committed a felony. Often we focus on the felony and forget about the person. If a person is to rise above their prior acts, education serves as a key to new perspectives and opportunities. Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, had clear thoughts on the goal of education. “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.” Likewise, those with a criminal past who want to start on a positive path need access to education. So, what student aid is available for a felon?

What types of federal student aid are available for felons?

1. Federal Student Loans

Federal Student Loans – The U.S. Department of Education can become your lender. They offer you fixed terms typically at better interest rate than traditional lenders. Also, your federal loans do not have to be repaid until education is completed or student drops below half time. There are four types of direct federal student loans:

  • Subsidized Loans – for students, based upon financial need
  • Unsubsidized Loans – for students, not based on financial need
  • PLUS Loans – for graduate or professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate students, not based on financial need
  • Consolidation Loans – allow you to combine all of your eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a single loan service

2. Federal Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants – Pell grants are awarded you as a student directly. They are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need. Pell Grants are for students who have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. You do not typically have to repay.  Amounts available to you will depend on these four factors:

  • Your expected family contribution,
  • The cost of attendance (determined by your school for your specific program),
  • Your status as a full-time or part-time student, and
  • Your plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.

The Department of Education has provided a list of Federal Student Grant Programs.

3. Federal Work Study (FWS)

Federal Work Study (FWS) – Provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. Hence, FWS allows you to earn money to help pay education expenses. Often job opportunities are community based or in your field of study.

4. Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) – Administered by the financial aid office at participating schools. Therefore, grant money is designated to the schools and awards are based upon determination of need conducted by the school. You do not usually have to repay these grants.

Student aid for felons provides opportunity for growth

Is a felon eligible for student aid while incarcerated?

If you are currently in prison, access to federal student aid is limited, but it is not impossible. The Department of Education reminds all interested to pursue education, regardless of your background. Even if you’re not eligible for federal student aid, you may still be eligible for aid from your state or school. For a more detailed breakdown Federal Student Aid for Students in Adult Correctional and Juvenile Justice Facilities

Is a felon eligible for student aid once out of prison?

Felons will find that opportunities to pursue education with assistance increases once they have been released from the prison. According to the Office of the U.S. Department of Education, “Once you’re released, most eligibility limitations will be removed. In fact, you may apply for aid before you’re released so your aid is processed in time for you to start school.” You can start with the types of federal student aid listed above.

Are there examples of felons who have found success through education?

Stephen Richards – prisoner to professor

Stephen Richards went from serving 9 years for marijuana to earning his bachelor’s degree while in prison, continuing his journey on to his doctorate and becoming a professor at Northern Kentucky University.  ”Ex-cons make good criminology professors because we know so much about the system,” Mr. Richards said. ”There are academics who feel somewhat threatened because we’re challenging their expertise. Very few venture into prisons, and they never really get it.” He continues his work with others who have risen through similar tribulations, to reform the criminal justice system from within.

Curtis Carroll – education while incarcerated

Curtis Carroll learned to read while incarcerated and has taught himself the game of the stock market as well. The two skills came together for him as learning to read unlocked a pathway to follow the money. Carroll says, “Being illiterate is like being in a bubble. Being uneducated affects the way people move in life, it affects what they become in life.” Curtis will tell you his own story in his TED Talk.

Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll learned to read while in prison

Why should tax paying citizens support felons access to student aid?

Marc Harmon is a professor of government and law at Georgetown University and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative. Access to education is directly linked to a reduction of re-incarceration. Reducing recidivism is creating a safer nation with less violence and fewer dollars allocated toward maintaining mass incarceration. Harmon cites a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which found education for incarcerated students reduced their odds of returning to prison by 43 percent. Professor Harmon commented that education, “Takes them down a different road. Instead of going back into crime, they have more productive pursuits and further their education and integration in society.”

Watch this short video of how Kyle Von Stroberg utilized education to rebuild his life and has set about to assist his fellow ex-convicts to do the same.

How can a felon get started pursuing student aid?

  1. Reach out to advisers while incarcerated to research colleges and scholarships.
    • This could be based upon location – whichever college is closest to your home, or it could be based upon occupation – if you have a specific career in mind that you would like to pursue.
    • You can request information from the institutions that you are interested in. Ask about the application process as well as what grants, scholarships and loans are available
  2. Fill our your FASFA, this will begin the process to determine which federal loans and/or grants you may be eligible for
  3. Apply to colleges
  4. Apply for grants, scholarships and loans which can come from the federal government, state government, the schools you are applying to as well as community organizations

We all win when felons pursue education

Remember a felon is a person who has committed a felony. Once that person has served their sentence it is in the best interest of society for that person to pursue a path that leads them on an upward path. When felons access education through student aid, we all can win. Our incarceration rates in the United States are world class, if we could invest those resources in providing resources to recycle lives rather than continuing to chain them we could work towards a better future. United Purpose Network is working to create a database of local resources that will help felons, families and communities to locate the resources necessary to help them recycle lives.

What is recidivism?

The definition of recidivism

What is recidivism?
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

We often start with the dictionary when we seek to understand a term that we are unfamiliar with. The dictionary defines recidivism as, “The tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.”

For those who have been incarcerated this means that they often find themselves back in jail or prison after their release. Unfortunately, the statistics show that there is a high rate of repeat actions that lead to re-arrest, re-conviction and/or return to prison. Recidivism is a relapse into criminal behavior. People need resources to change their perspective, expand their opportunities and dream of a better future.

How prevalent is recidivism?

Without a positive vision and support, too many individuals are choosing to return to criminal behavior. The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study in 2005 of over four hundred thousand prisoners in 30 states who had been released. The study revealed that:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.

In 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that the recidivism rate was “unacceptably high”. In the United States, we are aware that our punitive system of justice is not achieving reduction in crime or negative impact to society. We believe that there is hope to positively affect change through providing a pathway to resources for those looking for change.

What is the impact of recidivism?

Sessions commented that the impact of recidivism includes, “More costs for society, more dangerous work for our law enforcement officers, and more crime.” The United States spends nearly 300 billion annually on funding the criminal justice system as well as maintaining prisons. The New York Times reported that reducing recidivism by even 10% could provide cost savings of over $600 million in just the first year. This is just the reduction in cost to the state criminal justice budgets, but does not begin to account for the reduction in cost and impact to victims, families and communities affected by recurring crime.

What can be done to reduce recidivism?

In the article previously referenced, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared, “The Department of Justice is committed to improving outcomes for those reintegrating into society who want to abide by our laws.” We believe that improving outcomes for reintegration include connecting those individuals who were formerly incarcerated with resources that help them to recycle their lives. If we work together at the federal, state, county, community and family levels we can effect changes that will improve our country on a broad scale. Groups such as United Purpose Network are trying to make sure every individual that is reintegrating from prison knows that there are resources available to help them unlock their potential.