December 2018 marked a significant moment in U.S. criminal justice reform when the First Step Act was signed into law. The bill aims to ease the effects of hard-on-crime policies that for decades led to high incarceration rates, typically among African-American men. 

The legislation will also hopefully make it easier for ex-offenders and those who are now less likely to end up in prison to get jobs, says Harry Holzer, the John LaFarge, Jr. S.J. Chair and professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy, and one of the first people to research employers’ perceptions around hiring individuals with a criminal record. 

“A lot of employers, as soon as they hear ‘criminal record,’ they just shut the door,” says Holzer, who somewhat accidentally discovered employers’ unwillingness to hire ex-offenders while conducting research on desired job skills during the 1990s and early 2000s. 

While conducting surveys of employers he decided to ask whether they would hire certain individuals, listing several categories of less desirable job candidates—welfare recipients, people with a history of long-term unemployment and people with a criminal record—and overall, employers reacted much more negatively to the idea of hiring an ex-offender. 

“Employers just didn’t want to touch these folks,” says Holzer, who adds that someone who has gone years without re-offending, and has performed well in various training or work programs, might not pose as big a risk as many employers would think. 

Holzer also acknowledges that some of the apprehension is justified. Job candidates with a criminal record, for example, are often viewed as unskilled, having been out of the labor market for months or years at a time, and, depending on the offense, hiring someone with a criminal record may be a risk. “If an ex-offender was convicted of theft, you shouldn’t hire them into a job that involves handling cash,” Holzer says. “There are many legitimate times when an employer might say conviction is a bad fit for my job.” 

‘A Good First Step’

Yet, with the changing tide around criminal justice reform, as indicated by the passage of the First Step Act, as well as the tight labor market in which recruiting has become more challenging, there is an opportunity to help open employers’ minds to the idea of hiring ex-offenders and hopefully get more of these individuals into jobs, Holzer says. “If an employer can have one good experience, maybe they’ll have more, maybe they’ll tell other employers.” 

Decreasing high incarceration rates that have left a large section of the population virtually unemployable also gets support from both sides of the aisle, Holzer says. “Across the political spectrum people are saying that what we’ve done is a mistake, and it’s hurting the country and individuals and families and their communities.” 

Employment after incarceration is a key step for social integration, says Bruce Western, the Bryce Professor of sociology and social justice and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University, who studies the relationship between political institutions and social and economic inequality. “Harry’s research demonstrates the importance of helping to link formerly incarcerated people to jobs, and the importance of steady work to the process of reentry.”

While he admits that the First Step Act is not a magic bullet—“As the name implies, it’s a good first step”—Holzer believes it’s a move in the right direction and hopes that favorable outcomes from the legislation, including good outcomes for employers who hire ex-offenders, could lead to even more policy reform. For example, he says, “if we reduce incarceration rates without raising crime rates, or we induce employers to hire these folks and things go well, then maybe we can build on those positives in a second or third step.”