Opinion: U.S. Cities Ignore Potential Employment Pool as Staffing Shortages Continue

Businesses across the country are reducing hours or even shuttering because of a labor market shortage.

Given the economic instability we face in a post-pandemic world and considering the current labor crises facing many private and public sector employers, we can’t continue with “business as usual.” In order to fill positions and help these businesses stay open, we should consider offering employment to those who are ready, willing, and looking for a second chance: Formerly incarcerated individuals.

Now is the time to expand alternatives to incarceration for low-risk, non-violent individuals to help relieve the employee shortage crisis. Rather than put their health at risk by keeping them in jail, leaders should embrace opportunities to help these individuals reenter society safely, find work and help be part of their local communities once again.

Jails, as opposed to prisons, typically house pre-trial detainees, considered legally innocent at this stage of the judicial process, as well as probation and parole violators and misdemeanants—populations that are largely considered to be low-risk.

Employing these individuals would not just help the consumer side of our economy. We are also seeing staffing issues in jails in several cities, which, combined with overcrowding, is prompting unions to demand administrative and legislative action.

As winter bears down on states like Kansas, the ongoing shortage of jail deputies may start to be overshadowed by a lack of individuals willing and able to plow the streets this winter. In Nebraska, long-time favorite restaurants are shutting down, while jails struggle with capacity issues. Similar concerns are echoed in ConnecticutKentuckyPhiladelphia, and Cleveland.

Alternatives to incarceration, such as work releasehome confinement, and pretrial release offer a practical solution to the jail staffing shortages and general labor market concerns. These programs mandate employment or education, while frequently monitoring compliance and restricting the person’s whereabouts. Any issue of non-compliance can result in a return to detention.

Not only do these alternatives already exist, but research supports their efficacy in reducing jail population while increasing the pool of essential employees needed to sustain local, state, and federal industries. Additionally, those programs are more cost-effective and less likely to lead to recidivism. In short, they save taxpayer money and decrease future crime. Expanding inmate eligibility—particularly among pretrial detainees—offers a smart, safe and fair fix to filling open positions for businesses and municipalities alike.

Indeed, a 2015 study found that work release inmates had significantly lower recidivism rates and better employment outcomes than their counterparts. These positive results have been largely replicated through the federal government’s release of approximately 35,000 non-violent, low-risk offenders to home detention over the last year and a half due to COVID-19 transmission concerns. A year after release, less than 1 percent have violated their conditions of confinement and many have found gainful employment.

Moreover, compared to individuals who are not involved in the criminal justice system, research shows that ex-offenders are less likely to quit their jobs, and they are no more likely to be fired than other employees. Businesses also benefit from employing previously incarcerated individuals by receiving federal tax credits and some companies, like Dave’s Killer Bread, have distinguished themselves from market competition by supporting ex-offenders.

As the holiday season approaches, time is of the essence. Communities cannot afford to waste time ignoring established solutions to help alleviate staffing shortage problems. Now is the time for jail administrators and policymakers to do their part in helping relieve the pressures of the national employee crisis, while also helping themselves at the same time. Expanding alternatives to incarceration for low-risk individuals is the economic and public safety win-win we all need to ensure the sustainability of our communities and the nation as a whole.

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