Position switch: Employers should consider hiring trained, reformed felons

February 8, 2013 

At every meeting of Goodwill's board of directors, the staff presents success stories about employees who have benefitted from working there. At a recent meeting, they brought in three young men, each successfully employed at Goodwill and each hired despite felony convictions that included DWI-manslaughter and drug trafficking.

As we listened to these men describe their experiences and how Goodwill helped them, it became crystal clear what a valuable service Goodwill provides for this group. So often, convicted felons struggle with becoming productive members of society after their incarceration. There is a high rate of recidivism among these individuals, but Goodwill provides opportunities for gainful employment, sending out a life raft rather than allowing them to sink.

So many felons come out of prison with no hope that they will ever be able to find a job because of their crime. In the case of these three men, Goodwill supplied them with the hope they so needed when rejoining society.

I teach two entrepreneurship courses at the Gadsden Correctional Facility in Gretna, which is an all-female, minimum-security prison. These women know they will always wear the tattoo of a convicted felon and want to develop the skills they will need to be successful after prison.

As I was pondering the reasons these women are in prison, it occurred to me that each case was the result of one of two simple causes: doing stupid things and getting involved with drugs. Of course, outside

of these, there is a third group of people who are just evil -- the Charles Mansons of the world, for example. Thankfully, I have never had to deal with any of these as I have only worked in a minimum-security prison.

Among these women, stupid, thoughtless actions like running nude onto a football field were their downfall. One had been with her boyfriend while he perpetrated a crime, and she was unaware that he planned to use a gun.

These kinds of stories are so prevalent. We all do stupid things and have all ended up in a regretful situation because of our thoughtless actions -- maybe not to this degree, but it is not hard to imagine how one bad decision could be the cause.

In the other category are those who are serving time for drug convictions. Many may have sold drugs as it was the only way they could support their own habit.

Bottom line: These folks will come out of prison with all the skills they need to have successful careers, but may never get an opportunity to put them into practice because many entrepreneurs will just not hire them.

For many years, I discouraged entrepreneurs from considering convicted felons. I felt that you could never trust them or feel safe around them. But after working with these inmates, I have changed my opinion. I can now appreciate their potential value.

Kohl's and McDonald's are examples of large firms that hire and recruit convicted felons and understand the value they can bring to the table.

As I have said, I am now a strong supporter of hiring convicted felons, but I do have two caveats. First, if you hire a convicted felon, you really must know why they went to prison. For instance, in the case of a drug conviction, I would recommend regular drug testing. Second, you must be sure the candidate you hire for a bookkeeper's position has no crimes related to handling of money. I have just seen bookkeepers rob their employers too many times.

Now go out and consider hiring a convicted felon. These people are so much more than any crime they committed. These inmates can be great workers and just need a hand up.

Jerry Osteryoung, a Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship emeritus, can be reached at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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