There have long been criticisms of the harsh penalties handed down to those convicted of nonviolent drug charges in the United States.
As Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Inimai Chettiar write in a Time article, “39% of Prisoners Should Not Be in Prison,” our current system of harsh sentencing for drug offenses was in part a response to the explosion of crime in the 1980s and ’90s. “From 1960 to 1980, violent crime soared 270%, peaking at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 people in 1991,” they add.
As often happens, this societal pendulum appears to be swinging back in the other direction to some extent. President Donald Trump recently signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. “This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said, as reported by Vox. “The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
The law was passed with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats. It essentially provides an earlier release from prison sentences for thousands of current inmates and could cut the length of future sentences.
But the question then becomes: What happens to these prisoners once they are released? Reread the sentence Trump used: The law “gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.” Key word: productive. To most of us, being a productive member of society usually means being gainfully employed—and that is the problem for many ex-convicts.
In an article for CNN, Johnny C. Taylor Jr. writes, “while I applaud the bipartisan First Step Act becoming law, it really is just the first step. For criminal justice reform to succeed, American employers must take the next step: committing to consider qualified jobseekers with criminal records.”
Taylor argues that the HR profession is on board with giving convicts the opportunity for employment. “Nearly half of HR practitioners in the United States believe having a criminal history should not be a deciding factor in hiring,” he says. “But we aren’t seeing this in practice because most companies don’t have clear policies around hiring workers with criminal records.”
However, what his statement misses—or perhaps ignores— is that “nearly half of HR practitioners” agreeing that having a criminal history should not be a deciding factor in hiring means that most HR practitioners do not believe this.
In a follow-up post, we’ll discuss some factors companies should look to when considering whether to hire someone with a criminal record.