The Challenges and Opportunities in Hiring Ex-Offenders

Sponsors: Baltimore Workforce Investment Board, Greater Baltimore Committee, Open Society Institute, Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, and the Job Opportunities Task Force.

Forum Highlights Need to Educate Employers about Hiring Ex-Offenders

Maryland employers are interested in hiring ex-offenders but want to know more about the risks and rewards.

This was one of many important messages revealed at a July 17 th forum that brought together over 60 employers, business groups, government officials and workforce development leaders. Forum participants discussed the issue of hiring ex-offenders and brainstormed ways to increase workforce opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), the Greater Baltimore Committee, Open Society Institute – Baltimore, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the Baltimore Workforce Investment Board.

Secretary Aris Melissaratos of the Department of Business and Economic Development stressed that Maryland will need large numbers of additional workers – particularly in such fields as construction and hospitality – and can not afford to write off thousands of ex-offenders.

“To meet its workforce needs, Maryland must do more to prepare people in prison to re-enter society and the workforce,” he said.

“I think we need to give everyone in society hope. We need to get to the people who have gone astray in our society, train them in prison and give them the attitude that they can be productive members of society,” Melissaratos said. “We have to concentrate on giving people hope and opportunity so there’s no reason to go back to prison.”

John W. Ashworth III, senior vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System and chair of the Baltimore Workforce Investment Board, also stressed the importance of tapping into the ex-offender population to fill critical workforce needs.

“Businesses need workers. Workers need jobs with benefits,” Ashworth said. “With over 9,000 individuals coming into Baltimore from the state prisons every year, we must recognize the workforce opportunities that this population provides – as well as the challenges.”

During the forum, Ashworth outlined results from a Baltimore Workforce Investment Board survey of employers on issues regarding ex-offenders. The survey found that, among the employers who responded: 

  • About a third had knowingly hired ex-offenders. The rest either did not know the criminal backgrounds of their applicants or chose not to hire ex-offenders.
  • A majority were unaware of tax breaks or bonding programs that are designed to encourage the hiring of ex-offenders.
  • The top concerns about hiring ex-offenders were liability issues and employee drug use.
  • A large number were concerned about hiring people with convictions for violent crimes.

The forum included break-out sessions during which small groups identified key concerns that prevent employers from hiring ex-offenders, as well as steps that would encourage employers to consider such hires.

One key finding was the need to educate employers, particularly human resource officials, about ex-offenders – a “nuts and bolts” guide to what the risks are and what programs are available to help employers.

One employer mentioned that having a case manager or job coach from a community-based organization to work with ex-offenders would be a significant help.

Such training or assistance would help employers conquer their “fear of the unknown,” said Felix Mata, project director with the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. “A lot of them have not hired an ex-offender and don’t know what to expect,” Mata told the forum participants.

Several of the small groups also stressed the need to provide training and other services to people while they are incarcerated, to prepare them for the transition back to society and the workforce.

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, urged those at the event to support efforts to expand such services for inmates. The General Assembly has approved pilot initiatives in these areas, but has not funded a statewide program.

“This is the kind of thing that needs to be done,” Saar said.

She also thanked employers who have hired ex-offenders. “By hiring people with criminal backgrounds, you are giving them a chance to support themselves. But you are also sending an important message to other employers that these are good employees worthy of being hired,” Saar said.

One of the state’s largest employers, Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been a leader in hiring ex-offenders, putting about 100 on the payroll in six years.

“We can say, as an employer, we have had excellent results [hiring ex-offenders] but we recognize it’s merely a drop in the bucket,” said Ron Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the event was held.

Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said his organization has focused extensively on the issue of helping ex-offenders obtain employment.

“We support efforts to remove barriers to employment,” Fry said, including expanded drug treatment and job training.

For more information on issues involving the hiring of ex-offenders, contact Jason Perkins-Cohen at JOTF: 410-234-8040.


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