First Step Act Aims to Expand Hiring Pool by Helping Non-violent Offenders Re-enter Workforce

Are you falling behind in the war for talent? Have you ignored a largely untapped labor pool of almost 75 million people, who equate to nearly one-third of adults in the U.S.? With unemployment below 4%, and the GDP losing an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion annually as this group remains unemployed, maintaining outdated employment practices that present significant barriers to the hiring of individuals with criminal records is no longer a viable strategy for organizations.

The First Step Act signed was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December of 2018. The new law aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and improve programs to reduce recidivism, including workforce readiness. Businesses that are struggling to fill positions in a job market where there are more jobs than applicants can take the next step and include this population in their recruiting efforts. 


The commitment to reduce these barriers to employment produces positive results for individual businesses and the entire nation. Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, states, “The key to reducing recidivism and improving public safety is finding employment for people. If individuals with a criminal record can be considered for employment based on their talent and skills, the benefits for the business — and society — are far-reaching. HR professionals are well positioned to provide counsel and generate a tailored set of best-practice principles that will benefit both the business and the individuals seeking a second chance.”

Most offenders will not serve life sentences, but do we perpetuate their sentences for life by not hiring them?


Gone are the days of blanket policies prohibiting the employment of anyone with a criminal record. The EEOC’s long standing position requires employers to conduct an individual assessment on an applicant’s criminal convictions as to their severity, job-relatedness and recency; if there is no relevant risk, the record cannot be used against the applicant without the employer risking a discrimination claim.

But policy and practice aren’t always mirror images. A 2017 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) showed that employers did not call back for an interview:

  • 40% of male applicants with a criminal record, and
  • 70% of female applicants with a criminal record
  • With 93% of black women and 61% of Hispanic women less likely to be contacted for an interview or offered a job than white women.

And yet, a nationwide study commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) in 2018 found that 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals believe that the quality of hire for workers with criminal records is about the same or higher than that of workers without records.

So, where’s the disconnect? That report also showed some ambivalence about hiring from within this group, with 41% of managers and 47% of HR professionals unsure how they felt about hiring individuals with criminal records. Their top-rated concerns were about legal liability, customer reactions and regulations that prohibit or make it difficult to hire individuals with records.

Each year in the United States, nearly 700,000 men and women are released from prison and re-enter society, where many want to find jobs. Yet despite the growing need among U.S. employers for workers, applicants with a criminal record often face huge obstacles to achieving gainful employment.

As the nation reaches nearly full employment, business leaders and human resources professionals are considering these previously overlooked populations for the first time as a source for workers. In fact, job applicants with criminal records are proving to be a viable workplace solution for many organizations.

While a great deal of uncertainty about hiring workers with criminal records still exists among some senior executives today, a recent study commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) finds that employees generally are open to working side-by-side with the formerly incarcerated. Just 14% of HR professionals and 26% of managers are unwilling to work with or hire someone with a criminal conviction.

Employers who use criminal records in their hiring decisions need to be aware of applicable federal and state laws. Legal compliance with these laws is key when considering formerly incarcerated applicants for hire.