The biggest feather in the Koch network’s cap from 2018 was the passage of the First Step Act, a long-debated package of criminal justice reforms and prison anti-recidivism programs. The legislation aimed to ensure that a felon’s first trip to prison would be their last, and that felons can get education and training behind bars, and move into legitimate jobs that would turn them into taxpaying independent citizens, instead of a burden to taxpayers behind bars.
The next step, announced today at the Koch network’s winter meeting, is a “getting back to work initiative” designed to follow up on the legislation, launched in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management, the trade association for human resources employees. The initiative will inform businesses on how to recruit, hire, and keep employees who were previously incarcerated.
Charles Koch told the assembled members of the network, “when you hear that one out of four [Americans have a criminal record], this isn’t just some small isolated piece, this involves everybody throughout society.”
SHRM’s CEO Johnny Taylor said his organization had found that as many as 80 percent of employers supported the idea of hiring felons – but a much smaller percentage had actually hired many. They found three main obstacles among employers. The first obstacle was legal compliance issues, including most federal agencies and contractors that deal with security issues or require a federal security clearance. The second was the perception of civil liability on the part of employers, and a fear that hiring a felon could lead to a lawsuit if the felon committed a crime on the job. The third, Taylor said, was a psychological NIBMY (Not In My Backyard) mentality – that plenty of employers and employees liked the idea of hiring felons, but not at their own workplaces. He’s hoping the “employer toolkit” offered by SHRM and the Koch network will mitigate those forces.
Taylor admitted the liability issue was one of the most challenging, as the potential legal risk to employers varied from state to state. He noted that studies indicate that felons who had been released from prison were no more likely to commit crimes in the workplace than employees with no criminal records.
“Regardless of the employee, you do your diligence,” said Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries. “We’ve been hiring people with criminal records for as long as I’ve been here, about quarter of a century, and we’ve never had that issue. When you hire someone, either way, you’re taking a chance on them. We’ve hired people from the best schools, from the best background, and we’ve later found they’ve stolen from us.”
Taylor said that depending upon the measuring stick, there are anywhere from 6.6 million to 7 million unfilled jobs in the United States right now, and each year, roughly 650,000 people leave prison and reenter society.
“The First Step Act’s prison reform elements include education and skill training,” Holden said. “More people are going to be coming out for prison skilled and ready to go, ready to get back in the game. When employers choose to put applications of convicted felons in the wastepaper basket, it’s a huge wasted opportunity. A lot of these people are very hungry and very humble.”
Chris Wright, the chief executive officer of Liberty Oilfield Services, said that in his experience, released felons “have a passion to prove themselves. Really, you’re hiring the heart. If they’re going to work hard when no one is looking, and if they’re someone who will do the right thing, even under stress, you’re going to win.”
Holden noted that the while the Koch network pushed for the First Step Act and is eager to see America’s businesses start hiring the recently released, they oppose government mandates requiring employers to hire felons, and want to see employers freely embrace the option.