The federal agency that supervises offenders on probation and parole in Washington, DC isn’t going to tiptoe around this question anymore. Instead, at a time when a bad economy has made finding a job with a record even more difficult, officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency have started flat-out asking employers whether they’d consider bringing a former offender on board, and if not what might be done to change their mind.
It’s all part of a new media campaign designed to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone with a criminal record is the same. On any given day, the CSOSA’s Community Supervision Program is actively responsible for more than 16,000 offenders, many of whom are alcohol and drug-free, skilled, employment- ready and have put their past behaviors well behind them, says Leonard Sipes, the agency’s senior public affairs specialist. Yet, only about 53 percent of those individuals are currently working — a statistic CSOSA aims to improve by confronting the issue head on.
“ There’s a certain point where you’re not going to make an omelet unless you scramble some eggs,” Snipes said. “So we decided to take a risk. What do we have to lose by trying and giving businesses a voice? Sure, some will be harsh and negative, some will stereotype – but if we don’t engage in this conversation things will stay the same. Hopefully by doing this we’ll open the doors for one person to get hired and then maybe for two more the next time and build from there.”
The CSOSA will run video and radio interviews with employers on its website and YouTube. While some employers have been encouraging, many have told Sipes that they simply don’t want to hire ex-offenders because they’re worried about having to deal with trouble. “They want ironclad guarantees that the person will show up and do the job without creating problems,” he says.
Often, the companies want CSOSA to stay involved with the individual, so its caseworkers can help handle any situations that might arise. Typically, the agency will refer only the most employment ready, mature and reliable individuals in order to avoid such problems, but they are willing to work with the employer to help ensure things go smoothly. It’s in everyone’s interest, Sipes says, since studies show getting offenders back to work reduces recidivism and improves public safety. Employers who hire ex-cons can also take advantage of incentives, including tax credits and federal bonding.
What can ex-offenders do to improve their chances? Feedback to CSOSA so far indicates most employers are simply looking for someone with a good attitude. Skills aren’t always as important, as they will often teach the right person, Sipes notes. “If you present well and can say, ‘ I’m going to be here every day and I’m going to be a benefit to your company and all I need is an opportunity,’ – a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system have a hard time expressing that, but that’s what employers want to hear.”
It will be interesting to see what bringing this conversation to the surface will do. Readers, how about you? If you know companies that hire or don’t hire ex-offenders, what are their reasons? Do you think more employers can be convinced to give former felons a second chance?