New initiative being spearheaded to reform criminal justice system to help felons gain employment

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ST. LOUIS - The old saying goes, “if you do the crime, then you do the time.”  But what happens when inmates get out of jail?  Former felons say they constantly hear from people that they need to “get a job” so they aren’t a drain on the system.  But, one of the main problems is many companies won’t even consider hiring a felon.  But that may not be a wise business decisions.

That’s why many states and even local communities, are going forward with an initiative to “Ban the Box.”  That simply means that companies are no longer allowed to have the question of if a prospective employee has a criminal record.  They can ask about that later, but it knocks down one of the first barriers of ex-cons finding gainful employment.

In fact, in Missouri, former Governor Jay Nixon signed an executive order near the end of his term in office that ‘bans the box’ when it comes to state agency employment.  At the time, Nixon said, “The action I’m taking today will ensure that state government continues to be a model for increasing economic opportunity, improving public safety, and strengthening communities.” He added, “This is about fairness. Giving folks a fair chance to redeem their lives, support their families and make a contribution to their communities.”

Prison reform advocates point out that our system of laws are based on fairness and redemption.  Once the felons have paid their debt to society, the barriers that keep them from returning to a normal life should be erased.  21 states have already enacted policies like “Ban the Box” and many large corporations are setting up their own policies that mirror the initiative.

Washington University’s Center of Social Development is also pushing new initiatives to transform the criminal justice system in the United States.  Michael Gross is an employee with that program who has a degree in Biology, but also a felony on his record.  He says that there are many things the prisons can do to help people get more prepared for life after prison.  “Statistics show people formerly incarcerated actually make better employees,” says Gross.  “They are more dedicated, they show up on time, they do a better job because of what they’ve been through in the past.”

Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis, Assistant Professor in the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University says one idea is to partner with companies that need workers, but can’t find qualified people.  She suggests the Corrections Department work together with the private sector to find out what those “in-demand” jobs are, then get incarcerated people trained so they are ready to work as soon as they are released.    “It would have to be a partnership with the business community and departments of corrections because the business community needs to tell the DOC what types of skills sets they need and they need to make sure the prisoners getting out have those skills,” says Pettus-Davis.

Pettus-Davis says criminal justice reform isn’t just good for ex-convicts and their families, it’s also good for business and America as a whole.  “If we want to see this country continue to strive towards being a great country, then we can’t forget about the people who have become involved in the justice system.” ​

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