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There are more than 7.5 million unfilled jobs across the country — far more than the number of people seeking employment. Nebraska employers are seeing this trend manifest in the many vacancies in our state’s biggest cities.

In this tight labor market, smart businesses are turning to an undervalued applicant pool: men and women with a criminal record who have finished paying their debt to society.

For years, anyone who has to “check the box” on a job application has gone to the bottom of the stack, if not straight into the wastebasket. These days, approximately one in three American adults has a criminal record — too many to keep out of the workforce. But second-chance hiring policies can benefit businesses, revive local economies, build safer communities and save taxpayer dollars.

In most cases, hiring a well-qualified person with a criminal record makes sound financial sense. When I was in business, I found returning citizens to be loyal employees, often appreciative of the chance to prove themselves. Turnover is expensive; hiring “sticky” employees like these reduces recruitment and training costs and keeps employees with valuable institutional knowledge from looking for new opportunities at a business’ competitor.

An increasing number of prisoners in Nebraska are being helped by intensive programs, like the Prison Fellowship Academy, RISE and Alpha, that offer them the tools to be productive citizens with a sound moral compass — but they need a fair chance to put those skills to use after their release.

Second-chance hiring also reduces the tax burden by cutting down on the costs of our correctional system. On average, it costs more than $34,000 per year to keep an adult in prison in Nebraska. These costs, plus the costs of crime and law enforcement, rise along with recidivism and ultimately fall on the shoulders of taxpayers.

Finding a good job in a welcoming environment is one of the factors most likely to prevent someone from returning to prison. As former lawbreakers become wage-earners, they pay taxes and spend in their communities, creating cascading benefits for local economies. Conversely, unnecessary obstacles that keep returning citizens from full participation in the economy cost billions in lost GDP.

But far more is at stake than dollars and cents. When men and women who have paid their debt to society cannot find good jobs, they are far more likely to fall back into old habits and addictions and make poor decisions.

Many will be reincarcerated — and Nebraska’s prisons are already on a path to dangerous overcrowding. Their families will struggle to escape poverty. Children with incarcerated parents will face increased health risks related to stress and trauma and become more likely to get into trouble with the law.

Beyond all these arguments, offering second chances to people who have paid their debt to society is simply the right thing to do. As a Christian, I believe God offers new beginnings. If I make a poor decision, I hope for a chance to make it right and start over, and I can in good conscience offer no less to others. 

Becoming a society of second chances won’t happen overnight. It’s not enough to simply overlook the gap in someone’s employment history.

We need prisons to be places that facilitate true life transformation and equip people with marketable skills. We need workplaces and human resource departments to adopt second chances as part of their corporate philosophy. People with a criminal record need fair opportunities to access housing near their jobs. Faith communities need to learn how to support and encourage returning citizens and hold them accountable.

And, finally, we need to take a second look at the assumptions we make about people who have paid their debt to society.

At a recent town hall meeting here in Nebraska, I heard a well-dressed, well-spoken man make an eloquent argument for the needs for second chances.

As he finished, he underlined his point by saying, “I should know. I’m still on parole.” Nothing about the man had changed, but everyone in the crowd looked at him differently after his admission.

It’s up to all of us to create a culture of second chances that gives returning citizens, people who have paid their debts and left their pasts behind, a fair chance to thrive in the workplace and in life. People coming back to our communities after having served their time in prison deserve a second chance.

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Robert Milligan is a retired Lincoln business executive, former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and current board member of Prison Fellowship. 

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