Hiring individuals returning from incarceration can address the ongoing labor shortage

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Oklahoma has been a leader in innovative solutions that can help individuals who have served their time get back on their feet, re-enter the workforce, find stable housing and strengthen their communities ― and reaped the benefits.

In 2017, we reclassified certain low-level drug offenses to misdemeanors instead of felonies, saving precious dollars to reinvest in our communities. In 2018, we passed comprehensive sentencing reform and raised the age at which individuals can be charged with juvenile crimes and required all juveniles to have official legal representation. In 2021, Gov. Kevin Stitt took brave, bold action informed by his deep and personal faith and commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones.

In 2022, we became one of the first states in the nation to pass a Clean Slate bill, which would automatically seal old criminal records for more than 100,000 of our neighbors. Most recently, in 2023, Oklahoma’s leaders invested more than $12 million into county-based treatment and diversion options that are already helping reduce crime.

These policies worked. Over the past five years, our prison population has fallen by 21%. The number of felony charges filed in Oklahoma has decreased by one-third. Under the leadership of Gov. Stitt, our recidivism rate has fallen to 19%, the lowest in the country. We have invested in crime reduction rather than focusing on punitive measures, emphasizing data-driven solutions to push our state forward.

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Critically, these assertive acts also have saved tax dollars. Oklahoma spends more than $552 million each year on our prison system, without seeing any real benefits to public safety. Overall, the U.S. loses up to $87 billion due to the underemployment of people with criminal records. First-time incarceration reduces lifetime earnings by 30%, meaning less money in the pockets of our consumers and back into our businesses. Taking action to drive criminal justice reform forward will continue to strengthen Oklahoma’s economy.

But the obstacles facing individuals returning from incarceration are many — and so the solutions must be, too. Oklahoma still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire country. Individuals with old criminal records face 40,000 collateral consequences to meaningful reentry.

Addressing these obstacles will have a dramatic impact on Oklahoma. For businesses, Second Chance talent can be a critical resource to address the ongoing labor shortage. The unemployment rate for individuals with old criminal records is 27% — higher than the general unemployment rate at any point in history. At the same time, even with rebounding labor force participation, businesses across the Sooner State are struggling to find and retain quality talent. The vast majority of business leaders agree that their justice-impacted employees are as good or better than traditional employees. Especially in light of the ongoing talent gap, we must take action to create opportunities for our neighbors with old criminal records and allow Oklahoma to remain an economic leader.

More: I'm serving a life sentence in Oklahoma. We need prison reform, not longer punishments.

There is a tremendous amount business leaders can do to create this change. It’s why, last month, a group of employers joined a roundtable hosted by the Arnall Family Foundation, the Vera Institute of Justice, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to highlight how businesses can play a role in creating second chances.

The past five years have shown the impact that taking action to address much-needed criminal justice reform efforts can have. Now, Oklahoma must continue to move forward and be a leader in creating opportunities for our neighbors with old criminal records.

Tricia Everest
Tricia Everest

Tricia Everest is Oklahoma secretary of public safety. April is Second Chance Month, highlighting how businesses and organizations can provide a second chance to people formerly incarcerated, helping them to re-enter the workforce, find stable housing and strengthen their communities. 

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Former prisoners need opportunities to re-enter workforce, find housing