The Workforce You're Ignoring

Paul Chapman Commentary

The Workforce You're Ignoring

While Arkansas businesses are crying out for employees, thousands of capable, motivated workers are being locked out of the labor force through stigma, policy or inertia.

That excellent stocker, driver, cook, machinist, welder or floor worker your business is seeking might not be found among the recent graduates every employer pursues. Your next all-star employee could very well be sitting in the defendant seat of one of Arkansas’ more than 60 district courts.

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He or she may be caught in the legal system because of a minor offense — a speeding ticket, for example. But without the means to pay the fine, the legal debt snowballs, as do the other legal ramifications. For thousands of Arkansans every year, a minor infraction turns into a major entanglement with the law and even jail time, which drives wedges into families and curtails employment opportunities. You can’t hold a job when you’re serving time.

In White and Crawford counties, home to 10 district courts, judges, caseworkers, service providers and our agency, Restore Hope Arkansas, are demonstrating there’s a better way.

In these courts judges are doling out alternative sentences. For instance, if you earn your GED or get and hold a job, you can be credited against your court fines, eventually working them off. People whose substance abuse problems underlie their legal woes can get and stay clean to work off their debt to society.

In this way in Searcy, Alma, Van Buren and other cities, people are being transformed from drains on taxpayer resources into productive workers and contributing taxpayers. The data is dramatic. In the communities where this model of innovative justice has taken root, we’ve seen employment rates double among these justice-involved citizens — from 35% employed to 65% employed. Many individuals we’ve worked with started with legal debts of more than $1,000, a figure that they would never be able to pay. Through alternative sentencing and community diversion, they wiped out their debt while getting GEDs, staying employed, reuniting with their children and developing stable housing situations.

There’s a lot of stigma associated with a criminal record. But employers who write off job candidates with records are ignoring more than 78 million Americans. Some think it’s risky to hire these individuals, but the data tells a different story.

According to the national Second Chance Business Coalition, 85% of human resources leaders and 81% of business leaders report that people with criminal records perform the same as, or better than, employees without criminal records. The Society for Human Resource Management says employers have found that individuals with criminal records are strongly motivated, highly dedicated and long-tenured — factors we all look for in great employees.

Companies like Google, Lowe’s Cos. and Tyson Foods Inc. are leading the way in tapping this human resources pool. Each says criminal history is not a barrier to employment. In fact, there are no questions about prior convictions on Tyson employment applications.

Restore Hope’s “crisis to career” model meets justice-involved clients where they are — in district court and on parole — and helps them address problems they face, from housing to child care, transportation and job training. Integrating multiple services and agencies through proprietary software, providers coordinate to make sure clients receive necessary services in a sequence that is logical and effective.

Applying this homegrown model of community justice innovation in Arkansas, Restore Hope has nearly doubled the rate of finding stable housing and employment for people leaving the correction system. This helps break the cycle of economic hardship, poverty and incarceration.

What’s more, these programs require no new laws, additional public spending, services or resources. It’s simply a new way of thinking and organizing our courts and communities to deliver proven results.

In 2022, Arkansas can produce a new and untapped labor force, drive up employment, drive down justice system costs and drive economic development. That’s a better system for all Arkansans — including employers, communities and taxpayers.

Restore Hope Arkansas Director Paul Chapman has been engaged in issues of incarceration, employment, housing and foster care for more than a decade.