At first glance the facilities at Dave’s Killer Bread in Milwaukie, Oregon, look like any normal, bustling bakery. What most visitors don’t realize is that a majority of the 230 workers who make the company’s popular organic breads have criminal records. Giving ex-offenders a second chance has been the company’s philosophy ever since the Dahl family started the business in 2005. In fact, Dave Dahl, one of the family members who helped launch the company, was himself an ex-offender.
The Dahl family sold Dave’s Killer Bread in 2015, but the company, one of the largest sellers of organic bread in the nation, continues the tradition. It supports the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, which helps other businesses navigate the hiring, training, and retention of former prisoners. Genevieve Martin, executive director of the foundation, says many businesspeople used to find the idea of hiring formerly incarcerated people admirable but scary. When they’d ask Martin whether former prisoners would be unreliable or steal, she says she would tell them, “This is not a big deal…This is not complicated. At its core it’s about people and making sure you have the right people in the right positions.”
Today, Martin says the subject has become less taboo and prospective employers are less inclined to stereotype people with records, partly because the current labor shortage—as of April 2019, unemployment is at 3.6 percent—makes it necessary to tap into every possible labor pool. Across the country, a growing number of companies like Dave’s are aggressively hiring people with criminal records.
At the same time, a new breed of nonprofit is emerging that partners with businesses to help give people with records the job and life skills they need to stay out of jail and prosper. Ex-offenders who want to turn their lives around get a fair shot at a new life; meanwhile, employers get motivated workers with industry-specific training. In Arizona, where home construction is booming, a collaboration between business and the state prison system—called Second Chance—teaches inmates awaiting release construction skills and then connects them with busy contractors. In Cleveland, EDWINS, a high-end French restaurant, has built a program that not only teaches ex-offenders advanced kitchen and restaurant skills but also gives them full-time jobs.
Businesses can’t be blamed for being skeptical about hiring former prisoners. Historically, prison training programs largely failed to provide employers with workers who had the right skills and work habits. Before becoming national director of reentry initiatives at Right on Crime, John Koufos was a New Jersey criminal attorney who went to prison for a drunk-driving crash. He thinks of prisons as dysfunctional social hospitals. “They just set you out in the waiting room,” he says, “and they don’t X-ray you, don’t set the bone, don’t do anything. They just let the bone set wrong. And then say, ‘Go out and run a marathon.’”
For that reason, recidivism rates are high. Prisons are not a great place for getting an education or learning a trade. They are also not ideal for learning any of the social skills needed to get along on the job or for developing the necessary paper trail needed to even apply for a job—things such as getting a driver’s license, a Social Security number, or a bank account. Many ex-offenders have drug or mental health problems. Many are poor and burdened with fines, legal fees, and court costs, not to mention parole meetings or court-ordered treatment programs. Many wind up homeless.
As a result, the business community, despite some change of heart, is still unsure about hiring ex-offenders. According to a 2018 survey of managers and human resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and Koch Industries, Inc., 55 percent of managers say they are willing to work with people with criminal records, but 15 percent are not and 29 percent are unsure. The most common concerns among employers are the risk of violence in the workplace and the possibility of being sued for “negligent employment.
Fears about liability seem to be overblown. Brandon Chrostowski, the Cleveland restaurateur whose French restaurant, EDWINS, has been staffed almost entirely by people with criminal records since it opened in 2013, says he’s never been sued—and he isn’t aware of anyone who hires people with records who has. “I don’t know where that boogeyman came from,” Chrostowski says.
The numbers seem to back Chrostowski. There are currently about 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons. And there are a lot of people on the outside who have done time. One study estimated that as of 2010 there were 19 million ex-offenders who had been returned to society. Most of both groups of people were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Those prisoners willing to put in the time required by demanding skills-training programs tend to be highly motivated to change their lives. Carrie Pettus-Davis, an associate professor in Florida State University’s School of Social Work, who studies programs for prisoners reentering the workforce, says, “We have a highly punitive criminal justice system that punishes behavior that in other societies would not be considered criminal.”
A new generation of prison training programs, says Jeff Korzenik, chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank in Chicago, who often speaks and writes about reentry programs, represents a huge resource for employee-hungry businesses, particularly those with a desire to do good in their communities. The best programs work closely with local businesses to figure out their labor needs and to help managers help these employees adjust to a new life. Korzenik says, “You need nonprofit workplace groups to tell you who is ready.”
It is too early to gauge the long-term success of such programs, but some evidence gives reason for hope. Numerous studies have found that people with criminal records who have steady jobs are rearrested at a far lower rate than those who don’t. A Johns Hopkins five-year study of almost 500 ex-offenders hired by the university’s hospitals showed that they had a lower turnover rate during the first 40 months of employment than other employees.
Michael Summers, an Arizona contractor who hires soon-to-be-released prisoners who have trained to be masons, sums it up: “These guys are serious about turning their lives around.”
At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, we know that business owners struggle every day to find the right skilled employees. In the pages ahead you will learn more about an often overlooked source of new labor.