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Utah Business

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color.

Yes, you should hire a former convict (here’s how)

“I knew from the beginning that getting a job was going to be the foundation that everything else would be built on,” says Michael Ulibarri, a local ex-offender who now owns his own cabinet installation business. “Being gainfully employed with a livable wage has allowed me to look forward and plan for bigger and better things that are now coming to fruition in my life. I knew from the moment of my sentence that getting released was a second chance.” 

Ulibarri is an inspiration to ex-offenders and business owners alike. Because he was given a second chance and a job that he has now turned into a career, he’s been able to restart his life and help others, too. 

Why you should hire an ex-convict

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States has over two million people behind bars, and according to Prison Policy Initiative (PPIT) in Utah, more than 14,000 people are imprisoned at any given time. To put those numbers in perspective, Utah incarcerates more people—439 people per 100,000—than entire countries like the United Kingdom, Portugal, or Canada. 

But what happens when an inmate’s time is served and they are released? Like anyone, they need a job for income, purpose, and stability. Studies show that employment opportunities give ex-offenders a better chance at success when re-entering into society and help avoid recidivism, or re-arrest. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly difficult for them to find a job, which is evident by unemployment rates at over 27 percent for ex-offenders.

“Not having steady employment is the main reason I see most give in to the other pressures being released comes with,” says Ulibarri. 

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As a business owner or hiring manager, this might seem like a catch-22. On the one hand, companies want to help reduce recidivism rates in Utah by providing job opportunities to ex-offenders. On the other hand, it can be difficult to discern when and how to employ these non-traditional candidates. 

Simply put: yes, you should hire a former convict. Many ex-offenders, like Ulibarri, work hard to prove themselves in their new environment. They see it as a second chance and they’re not about to mess that up. This can be beneficial to companies who are often looking for more diverse talent and diversity of thought as well as to communities who want to reduce re-arrest rates and save taxpayer money.

“Not having steady employment is the main reason I see most give in to the other pressures being released comes with.”

“All these individuals want is a chance,” Ulibarri says, “an opportunity to be treated fairly and see some opportunity for advancement, some understanding about their situation, and to rebuild their lives. Employment is the cornerstone of that process. Giving someone an opportunity just may be the catalyst that creates lasting change. It surely was for me.”

Reducing the stigma attached to incarceration

Recruiting efforts aim to find someone who is hard-working, trustworthy, capable, eager to learn, and easy to work with―and ex-offenders might not be the first group of people companies look to for those traits, but that doesn’t mean they should be discounted because of societal stigmas.

“If you don’t have a lot of experience with someone with a disability or an ex-offender, you may go to the farthest extreme or the most difficult situation,” said Leah Lobato, director for the governor’s committee on the employment of people with disabilities and business relations. “People often assume that once a person is a certain way, they will always have those tendencies,” she says.

That stigma affects ex-offenders, too. “I was worried about the impact my record would have on my life going forward,” Ulibarri says. “The system really likes to push the idea that our lives will forever be restricted by our past mistakes. I stressed a lot thinking about the jobs I would be limited to and if I would find one that would allow me to fulfill my financial obligations. I was also very concerned about how others would view me when they find out about my past.”

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color.

Don Wright of Prison Education Foundation, a local program that provides prison inmates with education opportunities to maximize their potential in becoming productive members of society, explained that when ex-offenders get out of prison, there is “a great deal of apprehension about how they’ll be perceived.” He also said that getting a job is “very, very difficult” because the traditional beliefs of society are limited. 

“If business owners gave [ex-offenders] a chance, they’d be so grateful to have a second chance and trust in them they could hold a job and be productive,” says Wright. “That does an enormous amount for self-esteem and it’ll allow them to perform.” 

Lobato says that employers need to understand the difference between, “the kind of person they are, as opposed to the person they were in a situation at a time in their life where criminal activities [were the only option because it] seemed like they had no other choice to move forward.” 

To successfully hire a former convict, it’s important that business owners and hiring teams put aside any preconceived notion or stigmas that exist and give ex-offenders a fair chance during the application and interview process. One way to help do this is to understand and implement the “ban-the-box” movement. 

Why companies should “ban-the-box”

Ban-the-box is a campaign encouraging employers to remove the checkbox on application forms that asks whether a potential job candidate has a criminal history. This gives ex-offenders the ability to apply and interview for jobs without being disqualified in the first step as a result of their past. 

Utah has a form of ban-the-box that outlaws use of the box on State job postings, including municipalities and counties. According to Utah law: “Criminal history inquiries can only be made during the interview or later, or after a conditional job offer if there is no interview.” 

“Give these people an opportunity to present themselves and their skills so they can show the potential employer their enthusiasm and possibility,” Wright explains. “If I were interviewing someone who had been incarcerated I’d ask this question: ‘What did you do during your prison time to improve yourself?’” 

“The system really likes to push the idea that our lives will forever be restricted by our past mistakes. I stressed a lot thinking about the jobs I would be limited to and if I would find one that would allow me to fulfill my financial obligations. I was also very concerned about how others would view me when they find out about my past.”

Wright says it’s easy to notice the difference between inmates who wasted their time playing cards and those who took advantage of continued education and personal learning opportunities while incarcerated. 

“The first job I applied for was with the Volunteers of America; Adult Detox Center,” Ulibarri says. “The interview was a very interesting experience. I was very open with my past, explained that I was just recently released and was on supervision. I explained what I had learned and how I believed I could use it to help others. I was given the job on the spot.”

Resources for hiring ex-offenders

“Questions are a way to educate and break stigma,” says Lobato. “Those of us in this field (disability, ex-offenders, groups of ethnic diversity) are looking to start momentum and we don’t get offended by people who ask questions. We want and respect a business’ opinion and want to provide the support they need to move through difficult situations.”

Ulibarri agrees. In addition to his cabinetry business, he co-created a resource called Moving Forward intended to create opportunities for those individuals. “We work with individuals to learn their strengths and pair them with employers who can help them build those skills,” he says. “We work directly with employers to educate them on the prospective employees’ situation and work with them to develop a plan for advancement. We encourage and foster relationships between them. We stay involved with the process as long as needed.”

Both groups provide support and services for businesses looking to hire ex-offenders and can even connect businesses with ex-convicts who might be a good fit for those organizations. “We don’t expect businesses to hire someone simply because they’re down and out,” Lobato says. “We make a commitment that we’ll vet individuals who have the ability and skills to do the job.”

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According to Eric Barker, assistant regional administrator with Adult Probation and Parole, ex-offenders can even be a safer choice than most. “A lot of people can come and interview and look good on paper, but when you hire them, there are ghosts in the closet that come out. With a felon, you have these discussions up front,” he says.

Businesses that hire ex-offenders may also be entitled to financial benefits such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This credit allows businesses to submit a form and claim between a 25 and 40 percent tax credit on the first year of wages. There are federal, state, and municipal programs like this that vary state by state. According to a study conducted by Rand.org: “59 out of 100 employers filling an entry-level job would consider hiring someone who has one nonviolent felony conviction with the incentive of the baseline tax credit.”

Another safeguard in place is the Federal Bonding Program. This government program allows employers to hire ex-offenders without risk of losing property or money as they’re insured through the bonding program. Programs like the Utah Correctional Industry are “preparing people to go back to communities and never come back to prison,” Peterson says. “Maintaining steady employment is key to avoiding reentry.” 

“I believe that providing employment for those with a history will make stories similar to mine more common, and with some hope, these stories will become the norm and not the exception,” Ulibarri says. “I have met some of the smartest and most ingenious people in institutions. There is a gold mine waiting to be tapped with these individuals.”

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color.