Previously detained job seekers need more than education

Every year, 600,000 people are leaving prison and many are looking for a job. And because research suggests good employment can help prevent recidivism– not to mention that work is often part of the terms of probation or parole – the “prisoner return” area has focused on helping those previously incarcerated work readiness.

Tech companies, in particular, are beginning to recognize a social responsibility to educate people affected by the criminal justice system — through a lens of racial equality, and especially after the protests following the murder of George Floyd. In 2021, Google launched the Grow with Google Career Readiness for Reentry program, which aims to “bring digital skillss to previously detained job seekers.” The program funds several nonprofit organizations that support digital literacy, including Fortune Society and The Last Mile. Other organizations focus more directly on helping people find jobs: The next chapter Projectt offers training, apprenticeships and coaching in technology and engineering, recently helped place three previously incarcerated people at Slack, and has plans to expand to 14 more companies. (Outside tech, some businesses like the restaurants On the way to pizza and All squarehave also made hiring post-prison people central to their mission.)

There are benefits for employers. People with criminal records become routine recognized for how hard they work. The Society for Human Resources Management has a employer surveys showing that two out of three employers have hired someone with a criminal record; of those employers, a large majority agree that employees with records perform just as well as employees without records, and often the most dedicated and long-term employees.

Yet study after study confirms that criminal records remain a serious barrier to employment, in particular for: black men. And even if employers say they are willing to hire people with legal backgrounds, they do not. Why is this? And if so, what can tech companies do to really make a difference?

A great body of research has documented how race and criminal stigma have a negative influence hiring situationsespecially when employers also report concerns about workplace safety or negligent hiring liability, and even when those concerns are not based on legal reality. However, less attention is being paid to how employers screen and hire people in the digital age – and how this can complicate the efforts to get a job, even for the most qualified applicants.

The average sentence in federal prison is a a little over 12 years. This means that recently released people may have never seen an iPad, but are pitted against a workforce in which more than 80 percent of job seekers reporting using online resources when looking for a job, and in an environment where companies using more and more digital and virtual screening processes. Many people who come out of prison don’t have a digital reputation, and if they do, it often is dominated by proof of their criminal conviction. This means that people who come out of prison lack both the digital skills and the digital reputation needed to find steady work. Programs like Google’s help with digital skills, but they don’t always address the digital reputation component, such as allowing people to remove their old mugshots from search engine results.

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