As the tight labor market makes it difficult for employers to find workers, the attorneys general for North Carolina and South Carolina encouraged a group of local business leaders in Charlotte to tap into a “hidden workforce:” former inmates.
North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4.2% in August, according to the state Department of Commerce, leaving many employers struggling to fill positions. Meanwhile, more than 22,000 inmates are released from North Carolina’s state prison system every year, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance hosted a discussion on the issue Tuesday, moderated by Jeff Korzenik, chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank, at the Goodwill Opportunity Campus as part of the group’s “Untapped Potential” series.
“We have a tight labor market, and people leaving prison are exceptionally motivated to get a job,” N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein said in an interview after the discussion. “And it requires employers overcoming prior stigma in order to be open to the idea of hiring somebody who is leaving incarceration.”
South Carolina’s Attorney General Alan Wilson told a personal story about the issue: When he was running for office, he offered one of his hardest-working campaign staffers a position as a field director. That’s when the staffer told him he had been convicted in college of possession with intent to distribute heroin.
Wilson’s first reaction was to worry about how it could hurt him in the campaign.
But then, he decided: “What kind of message would I be sending as the chief law enforcement officer of the state if I’m going to put a scarlet letter on your chest and relegate you to a lifetime prison sentence of being stereotyped and not employable?”
So, Wilson hired him for the position, and he became the best campaign employee he ever had, he said.
Stein said local organizations are key to helping employers connect with formerly incarcerated individuals. In Charlotte, groups like the Center for Community Transitions, Mecklenburg County Re-entry Services, and NCWorks help people with criminal records transition back into society.
“When someone gets out and they find door after door closed to them, they have one path,” Stein said. “And that path ends up being whatever it was that led them to be arrested in the first place.”
Stein praised The Second Chance Act bill, which would automatically expunge the records of people who have had charges dismissed or were found not guilty of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes.
The bill passed the N.C. Senate with bipartisan support in May. Supporters of the legislation say it increases someone’s chances at getting a job or finding housing. The bill is now before the House.
“People are not who they are at their worst moment,” he said. “And we have to be willing to give people a second chance.”