Connecting state and local government leaders
A unique jobs website lists available Shelby County government jobs for people with arrest or conviction histories in an effort to fill job vacancies and reduce recidivism.
Think about the worst 10 minutes in your life, challenges Jerri Green, senior policy advisor for Shelby County, Tennessee’s mayor—“just something where you went right when you should have gone left. Think about going into a job interview and having that be the first thing people ask you about every time. How long do we want to continue to punish people for their mistakes? When is it enough?”
These are the questions Shelby County officials kept asking themselves. Work to Break the Cycle is their answer. It is a jobs website that provides regularly updated, available Shelby County government jobs for people with arrest or conviction histories.
“Shelby County government wants to hire justice-impacted individuals,” Mayor Lee Harris said in a press release. “Meaningful, stable and sustainable employment can help ensure individuals do not reoffend and create new victims of crime. Our jobs on the Work to Break the Cycle website come with the promise of benefits like a living wage, paid parental leave, and health care coverage. I believe expanding these second-chance opportunities benefits our whole community, reduces recidivism and makes a real impact on public safety.”
The idea for the website came from the mayor wanting to push “ban the box” further, according to Green. Shelby County passed a ban the box ordinance in 2020, which eliminates inquiring into arrest and criminal histories from Shelby County government job applications. The county has hired 100 individuals with a criminal record since the ban the box ordinance went into effect. But Harris wanted to continue to build on that effort, says Green, explaining that, “well over 90% of people have criminal records. We knew that there was a larger population out there.”
It is estimated that 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record. Over the past decade, at least 37 states and over 150 cities and counties have passed ban the box ordinances. Another 10 states have passed clean slate initiatives, which essentially uses technology to seal or expunge criminal records if a person stays crime-free for a period of time.
These efforts are all aimed at ensuring that formerly incarcerated individuals can find a job. Research has shown that recidivism rates drop by 20 percent when formerly incarcerated individuals are employed.
“People want the jobs, people need the jobs,” Green said. “It is just giving them the knowledge of where to apply.”
That was the motivation for Shelby County’s website, which took two years to develop, in part, because it had to be built from scratch. “There are a lot of models out there for ban the box ordinances,” Green said. “But there was nothing that I could find as a model for the website from the government perspective.”
Green, who is a former public defender, extensively consulted with county officials and criminal justice experts in building the website. She says one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the process was creating a curated list of jobs for people with convictions, which involved extensive work with individual divisions and managers.
With the Work to Break the Cycle site, the county also sees an opportunity to fill vacancies.
“We have 50-100 active openings every month,” said Green. “When those are filled, we are better able to serve the community. For us, this is an opportunity to get and maintain talent.”
Patience Lewis-Walker echoes that sentiment. As deputy executive director for the Mid-Atlantic, Mountain Plains & Southern Regions at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), she says employing justice-impacted individuals means a decrease in recidivism and fulfilling a need for that government.
CEO is a social enterprise nonprofit that provides workforce development to the people most at risk of returning to prison, a population that Lewis-Walker says tend to be people with little to no work history, little education and, maybe, multiple convictions.
CEO’s model is to put these people immediately to work when they are released. For four days a week, formerly incarcerated individuals go to work and earn a daily paycheck that helps them buy food, secure housing or contribute to a household. On the fifth day, CEO provides participants intense workforce coaching: how to search for a job, how to apply for one, and how to interview, among other things. It also addresses other barriers, such as transportation needs.
Lewis-Walker says that CEO contracts with governments across the country and that the nonprofit prefers to work with them.
“The public sector is where we like to focus our efforts because of the long-term opportunities,” she said. “Government jobs are really a great fit when it comes to stability for folks who have been justice-involved. They get pretty slim pickings when it comes to private-sector jobs because the ones offered are often part time or have irregular hours and come with no benefits. Government is a job with benefits, a pension, reliable hours.”
Citing her nonprofit’s own research, Lewis-Walker says that through employment and workforce coaching, CEO has seen a 22% reduction rate in recidivism, that participants were 48 percent more likely to be employed three years after program entry, and cost savings to taxpayers—every $1 invested in a CEO program, yields a $3 benefit to taxpayer.
The effort in Shelby County touts similar statistics. In addition to filling open positions, employing people with criminal records helps to reduce recidivism, improves public safety and saves taxpayers money. “It costs taxpayers $80 billion a year to incarcerate America’s 2.4 million prisoners,” the Work to Break the Cycle website states, “and this doesn’t include the cost of families affected by the loss of income, payments associated with visitations, or legal fees.”
Green doesn’t see the work ending with the website. Mayor Harris’s office has worked on approaches as complicated as bail reform and programs as straightforward as providing bus passes to people to get back and forth to court. A bus pass for a day is $2, says Green, which is cheaper than arresting someone and keeping them in jail.
“The mayor was really intentional in his reelection [campaign to pledge to employ people with convictions],” Green said, “because that can be a game changer generationally. That is the legacy that he wants to leave.”
Lewis-Walker agrees. “We need to create a safe space for folks to come home, and all that starts with a job and being able to care for yourself.”