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,”