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Philanthropy’s Role In Real Second Chances

By Celia Ouellette and Dylan Hayre

One in three people in the United States has a criminal record, and a dense web of more than 40,000 laws and policies — often referred to as “collateral consequences” — has the potential to turn each of those records into lifelong punishments and a basis for enduring exclusion and discrimination. Nearly three-quarters of those consequences are employment related, preventing or wholly impeding people who have served their time from finding work. 

The systemic racism that pervades our justice system means that these barriers disproportionately impact people of color, exacerbating systemic racism in our economic system and representing a fundamental barrier to racial equity in our society. 

While this reality should motivate constant reflection and growth by all who have some role to play in building toward a better future, the shared obligation we have in that work was rekindled with brutal urgency two years ago. May 25 marked two years since the murder of George Floyd, a moment that transcended conversations about policing in the United States and spoke to or sparked a national reckoning with race, racial history, and racism. Remembering that moment now, though, is not enough. We must reaffirm our commitment to tackle these inequities and create a fairer and more equitable society. 

Business and philanthropy have a critical role in that fight, particularly in maximizing the economic opportunities for people and in giving system-impacted individuals the second chances they deserve.

As engines of economic activity, business leaders have tremendous ability to influence public policy and help create change. The work that the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ ) has spearheaded in the business community is proof of this idea. Through partnerships with, support of, and advocacy within this space, RBIJ has pushed business leaders to oppose the death penalty, support bail reform, and expand inclusive hiring efforts to ensure that people with criminal records have a fair shot at good jobs. 

Business leaders can also take action even before policy reform solutions come into effect. They are largely free to recruit, hire, and retain who they want. Why not reach out directly to people with records, or build relationships with the advocates and organizations who can facilitate that outreach, and offer employment? Where this is already happening or being considered, business leaders can be vocal about the efforts they have taken, or the questions they have, around supporting people with records in their workforce.

Recognizing their own potential is not enough. Business decision-makers often need guidance on how to both utilize their resources and voices to achieve the greatest impact. Philanthropy is well positioned to help offer that guidance, and to bring business leaders to the table to share lessons learned with one another. This is exactly what Second Chance Month compels us to think about — identifying how we can better support partners in this work, and ensuring that the work we’re doing is collaborative, complementary, and focused on the shared purpose of expanding economic mobility for people with records.

The urgency of our need to make progress cannot be overstated. The myriad, onerous barriers that prevent people with records from obtaining or keeping employment are largely unjustified and often completely untethered to community safety outcomes. Conversely, these barriers might help to undermine community safety by making it impossible for people who are leaving jail or prison to get their feet beneath them and move forward.

Recent Arnold Ventures-funded research by the RAND Institute revealed the scope of the problem: 64% of unemployed men have an arrest record; 46% have been convicted of a crime. Even with 11.3 million jobs to fill across the country, the business community ignores this largely-excluded, overlooked workforce at its own peril — a fact made even more evident when you consider that people with records perform as well as, or often better than, their peers in numerous jobs while their chances of becoming involved with the legal system again significantly diminish over time.

Business leaders therefore have not only the capability to take action, but also the need. Doing that in a way that moves the whole business and policy-reform community forward is crucial. It requires deep, ongoing conversation among leaders across the field. Philanthropy can, and should, continue finding ways to facilitate that conversation. Still, no single organization can solve all of the problems that prevent people with records from finding good jobs. But together, the business and philanthropic sectors can help harness the existing momentum in this field and transform it into a long-term vision.

As our nation continues to recover from the economic blow dealt by the pandemic and look forward to a better future, and as we reflect on legacies of injustice and the need for collective reckoning in our justice system, there is no better time than now to get started with second chances.

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Celia Ouellette is founder and CEO at the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Her email is celia@rbij.org. Dylan Hayre is director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. His email is dhayre@arnoldventures.org

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