Ex offenders - an untapped resource?

18 Aug 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Aug 2017

From prison to work. Pic: Allesio Lin, Unspash

There are proven ways to rehabilitate offenders. But is Northern Ireland up for it? 

It is often necessity, rather than government policy or idealism that powers change. A butter-making plant in a nation famed for its harsh treatment of offenders has emerged as the unlikely global champion of a movement which sets out to prove that the best way of stopping people from reoffending is to employ them.

It all started several years ago when Michigan-based Butterball Farms started to experience difficulties recruiting new staff. It needed to widen the pool of applicants and decided as an experiment to target people who had just been released from prison.

There was a logic to this. The US has around 65 million ex-offenders of one kind or another and every year 600,000 are released from prison. Enployers, just as they are here, are deeply reluctant to employ people with criminal records and so therefore the chances of them finding work are extremely low.

The company set out to discover whether this large cohort was really untouchable or whether it represented a significant resource of untapped potential.

The results were so astonishing that they soon started to attract attention from major national corporations.

Butterball discovered that ex-offenders were more likely to stay loyal to their employers and tended to be highly motivated: keen to prove their worth and to work hard to establish and better themselves within the business. Bonnie Mrozcek, chief talent officer for Butterball Farms said: “We’ve found that just by us giving that opportunity, a lot of people so appreciate it that what we get back as a company in return is much greater than what we ever gave in the beginning.”

Now very large US companies including Target, Home Depot, Walmart and Koch Industries are pursuing similar policies.

They are making the shift because they want to fill posts and develop more productive workforces.

The employment of offenders is every bit as stigmatised in the USA as it is here. Many employers will not even consider people for jobs if they have a criminal record. They are even barred from practising some trades that are routinely taught in prison: hairdressing for example.

This mindset, however, is gradually changing. Butterball, for example, has now moved on from merely employing ex-prisoners to encouraging others to do so. It is championing an initiative called: 30-2-2

The initiative aims to work with 30 local organizations that will each hire two individuals with a criminal background and track their progress and success for two years. The object is to prove that ex-offenders can make great employees and that companies who refuse to hire people with criminal records are seriously missing out.

There is, of course, another reason for doing this that has benefits not just for the employers concerned but for wider society.

Finding a job is a critical success factor in rehabilitation. People with stable lives and stable relationships are much less likely to offend. Being unable to find work and help to build that security is a major factor in re-offending and if people are unable to become productive members of society then there is a risk of them entering a life of crime, at enormous additional cost to the state and to the communities in which they live.

In order to build confidence in these schemes and to ensure nothing goes wrong it is important to have adequate monitoring, and where appropriate, safeguarding measures in place. Once reassurance is provided in these areas, surely employing ex-offenders is a good thing?

Sadly that is not the general view. In Northern Ireland there is a strong tradition of tabloid newspapers running stories “exposing” employers who take on ex-prisoners. The general pattern of these pieces is to trot out their offences, suggest that the individuals pose a risk to fellow workers and customers and to characterise their employment as an insult to victims.

In addition there is the widely held belief that when it comes to jobs, ex offenders should be at the very back of the queue and certainly behind those applicants who have never committed crimes.

However this may have to change with Brexit. It is highly likely that the next few years will see a reduction in the numbers of European migrants coming over here to find work. Sectors such as agr-food and hospitality will suffer. The same forces that drew Butterball to the untapped resource will start to emerge.

In the meantime we need to inject some logic into the debate about punishment. This will not be easy at a time when pundits and politicians alike have felt free to comment on a manslaughter sentence without feeling the need to have seen the expert evidence upon which the sentence was based.  

The problem stems from an unbalanced view of what the justice system is for and how crime can be reduced.

Penology is the study of punishment. In our legal system the most severe punishment available is a prison sentence.

There are several reasons for prison sentences, which vary according to the nature of the crime and the offender, and sometimes overlap.

They are as follows:

to protect society – an incarcerated person is not in a position to continue offending; to build confidence in the justice system,

deterring victims or their friends and family from taking the law into their own hands;

to signal society’s disapproval of the crime and criminal and,

to punish the offender, to make him or her “suffer the consequences” by being deprived of that most basic freedom, their liberty.

All of these are valid.

Another reason is also often cited: rehabilitation – to reform the character and or behaviour of the individual concerned so that he or she is prepared to become a productive member of society. The problem is that rehabilitation isn’t working because prison regimes have become “universities of crimes” a sort of underworld finishing school. Addressing this is unpopular because it involves helping prisoners to change, not just punishing them for what they have done.

Yet rehabilitation is the most important of all because if we could reduce the number of criminals we reduce the number of crimes and that makes society safer and saves enormous cost both to our economy and the prison system.

If we are to secure change our best hope is through the needs of business as they experience shortfalls in their recruitment. This is starting to happen in America, it needs to accelerate here.


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