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Second chance jobs give formerly incarcerated people a fresh start in Kentucky

Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

April is Second Chance Jobs Month, which highlights the need for job opportunities for formerly incarcerated people and re-entry support services to help them gain and keep employment.

When people leave prison, they walk into a world with barriers to job opportunities, education and other necessities. But perceptions towards hiring them could be slowly shifting, as organizations have stepped in to help people re-enter the workforce.

Ray Mansfield is the Louisville site director at the The Center for Employment Opportunities. The center provides wraparound services that include transitional employment, job coaching and placement.

He said employers who hire people who have been incarcerated give positive feedback about their new employees.

“Because they want to prove themselves so much as worthy, and also show appreciation for the opportunity that these employers give them,” he said.

The program Mansfield directs starts with a two day orientation, then a transitional working group, where participants learn skills on the job, and get training in soft skills. They also get paid a daily wage.

“This gives participants an opportunity to make money as fast as possible, which is one of the largest barriers that individuals face when being released from incarceration. Yes, it's employment, but even before employment, they need money, right? And you gotta have employment to make money,” he said.

Next, a job coach helps participants build out their resumes and get an understanding of what they've been through and barriers in their life. They also discuss professional interests and any specific goals someone might have in a given field.

Then they work with a job developer to hone their resume towards applying to the second chance employers identified by the organization, and prepare for interviews. If they get the job, a 12-month “retention” period goes into effect where the center regularly checks in. They also offer an incentive – periodic stipends up to $500 during the retention period.

That retention period comes in handy when a job isn’t working out, or an employee isn’t ready. They can then come back to the center to work and get more support.

Some companies, Mansfield said, are eager to support the idea of second chance jobs but do not understand the adjustment it really takes. He said there are policies and workforce infrastructure required to make things work.

“There's instances where the management and leadership may be completely on board and supportive of the idea and the efforts, but the workforce itself doesn't, or the lower entry level management is not as bought in,” Mansfield said. “And that's where we see a lot of the disconnect with participants and employers when it doesn't work out or when they feel discriminated against.”

Mansfield said he’s open to having a discussion with anyone who may have reservations around hiring formerly incarcerated people.

“Because I understand, I understand, you know, it is a risk, but you don't get reward without risk. And I believe the reward is much greater than the risk, more of the participants and individuals wise than not,” he said.

People who have been incarcerated often face challenges when they look for jobs. Some job postings explicitly say that they do not hire people with a criminal record.

For others, they pause when they see the box on an application that asks “are you convicted of a felony?”

Marcus Jackson is the founder of a statewide nonprofit called ABLE – Advocacy Based on Lived Experience. His experience with the prison system started at 19.

He said he was lucky to find an employer who treated him well. It’s not always the case.

“Without that [check box], there would be more opportunities for people and less opportunity for people who take advantage of other people that are there to just to do good work,” he said.

In 2017, former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued the “Fair Chance Employment Initiative” executive order, which removed the question of whether an applicant has been convicted of a felony from employment applications for certain jobs at the state level.

In Louisville, the city ordinance prohibits the box at the local level. It would ban the Louisville Metro Council, contractors, and vendors doing business with Louisville Metro from asking if they have a criminal conviction in the application. The city performs a background check for applicants who are otherwise qualified.

But there are other pitfalls too.

“The thing is, like, if you give me an opportunity, I'm going to be extremely loyal to you and in your company. That's the way it has been. That's the way it always will be. And unfortunately, you do have individual business owners that will take advantage of that person,” he said.

Jackson also says employers must learn to understand their employees' trauma after prison and not stigmatize them further. For many of them, he says, work is not just a 9-to-5 or a clock-in, clock-out situation; it’s about community.

“And I can tell you, it's people that support them as people that aren't judging them, it's people that see them as somebody more than just that incarceration, or that addiction, is that sense of belonging that makes you feel like you are somebody,” he said.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced a new website for formerly incarcerated people to get re-entry support – It connects people to jobs, addiction treatment services, and offers assistance to get their GED or a college grant for adult education.

And last week, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg announced the launch of a ‘Second Chance Supporting Business Certification’ for businesses to employ people with criminal records who want a fresh start. The initiative is borne from Louisville Metro Council’s Second Chance ordinance that passed in 2022 to address barriers to employment for people with criminal records, especially for Black and Brown communities in the city.

A business is considered second chance supporting business if at least 10% of the employees were previously convicted of a felony or Class A misdemeanor.

Businesses that receive the certification will have opportunities to collaborate with Louisville Metro Government as subcontractors and suppliers. They will also be listed on the LMG’s diversity website for up to one year, and get access to networking events and training opportunities.

Copyright 2024 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit Louisville Public Media.

Divya Karthikeyan covers Race & Equity for LPM.