Individuals coming out of prison are often beginning a new type of sentence. After serving their time, they face many more collateral consequences including being unable to get hired for jobs that pay a living wage or to find affordable housing, having to pay off huge debts, and juggling several appointments during the day.
“We as a society say this crime is worth this much time of incarceration,” says Amber Ramirez, Director of Central Iowa Works. “If we want individuals to become productive members of society, then we can’t have collateral consequences.”
Amber co-chairs the Re-Entry Task Force, convened by Central Iowa Works and OpportUNITY, which brings together more than 60 people representing ex-offenders, community services agencies, law enforcement, Iowa Department of Corrections, and employers to increase opportunities to succeed for those returning from prison. Monthly informational meetings share people’s experiences, discuss challenges, and create solutions to address those challenges. Committees work in areas including housing, employment, and community connections.
“We need to invest in our community by giving people a second chance,” says Mary Kelley, Director of Operations at Project Iowa and co-chair of the Task Force. “It’s giving people an opportunity to be successful."
As the state focuses on re-entry in the month of April, Amber and Mary highlighted these changes the Task Force is promoting with employers to implement hiring best practices and boost retention with individuals who have a criminal record.
Promoting Fair Chance Hiring
The Task Force has been looking at employers' background check policies and practices and sharing successful strategies. Many employers use a third-party background check service that provides a “yes” or “no” answer to whether a job candidate has a criminal record, but a one-word response doesn't tell the candidate's full story.
“Employers need to make sure the charge is directly correlated to the job and how it could impact their ability to do the job,” says Mary. “The charge could be 20 years old or something unrelated to the job they will be doing.”
Automatically screening out all individuals convicted of a crime is increasingly recognized as discrimination, since systems and policies have led to a disproportionately higher rate of incarceration among minority populations. Employers in Polk and Dallas Counties need to be aware of Fair Chance Hiring laws in place and consider changes to increase diversity in the workplace. The goal for employers, says Mary and Amber, should be to not screen out an individual before having a chance to know their skills and experience.
“Employers have this huge pool of candidates,” says Amber. “There is a misconception that people in prison are low-skilled, but the reality is that all skill levels are represented, and many people have strong experience across several fields. As employers realize that, they change their policies to avoid screening out strong applicants for reasons that don’t make sense.”
The Task Force also has worked within specific industries to lessen hiring restrictions, most recently with health care, which has a shortage of workers and provides opportunities for career advancement for individuals entering the field. The group is now looking toward the financial services and IT field.
“A lot of people have the skills needed to work in IT,” says Amber, “and the theory is to start either where they qualify, or to become familiar with their capabilities through something like the help desk or customer service level, and give them the tools and experience to help them level-up into more advanced professions."
Addressing Other Barriers to Employment
Access to licensing is another area in which the Task Force is beginning to review. Individuals who come out of prison with experience for jobs, like being a barber, working in health care, or being a CDL driver, may not be able to get a license to do that work because of their record. Iowa has a lot more jobs that require licensing compared with other states, says Amber and Mary, and licensing boards often disqualify people because of “good character” clauses without considering the steps the individual has taken since being convicted or their skills.
Housing is another challenge that impacts employment. Someone with a criminal record often struggles to find a landlord who will rent to them and is in a location where they can access the bus line or have another way to get to work, especially if their driver’s license has been revoked. The Task Force successfully advocated to allow those convicted of a non-driving-related drug charge to keep their license, rather than having it automatically revoked. Community agencies on the Task Force have put together a housing guide of places that will rent to ex-offenders.
Building Community Understanding
The Re-Entry Simulation, provided by the Task Force, has been impactful in helping participants get a better understanding of what it’s like to navigate systems and meet requirements once leaving prison.
“When employers start to realize how difficult we are making things as a society, they can start to look at their own practices and how they can get more talent into their companies,” says Amber.
After going through the simulation, some employers have made adjustments to improve employee retention, including creating work schedules to better accommodate the bus schedule and to allow employees to get to required appointments. Parole officers have started to allow changes to meeting times to accommodate work schedules, says Mary.
These topics and more will be highlighted at Iowa’s first statewide Re-Entry Conference April 20-21 taking place virtual. Learn more about the Task Force and sign up for the conference:
Interested in hosting a re-entry simulation at your workplace? Connect with Amber Ramirez, director of Central Iowa Works.