Santa Cruz Employers Discuss ‘Building Futures’ that Involve Hiring People with Criminal Records

June 24, 2016

Joining the growing national conversation around reducing barriers to employment for people returning home from incarceration, this month two California Chambers of Commerce hosted Building Futures—a forum for business owners and human resources professionals in Santa Cruz County to learn about hiring people with criminal records and strategies for addressing workforce shortages in their communities.

“It’s good for the community to engage people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, [and] it’s good for your business,” said Bill Tysseling, CEO of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, to the audience of mostly small businesses at the event.

With unemployment rates dipping below 5 percent in many states, many businesses are facing a shortage of qualified workers and are now recognizing the need to widen their talent pool and consider hiring candidates with a criminal record. Of the nearly 269,000 people living in Santa Cruz County, approximately 50,000 have a criminal record, according to Jeanne Woodford, former warden of California’s San Quentin State Prison.

“The doors of a prison swing both ways,” said Woodford, adding that the majority of the people who are currently incarcerated will be released at some point.

Several business owners at the forum shared their experiences hiring people with criminal records, stating that those employees were often among their most motivated and skilled on the job.

“Many became core employees who stayed for many years,” said Sequoia Cheney, co-owner of Wonderfully Raw Gourmet. “It has been tremendously rewarding for us and for them.”

Several presenters at the event pointed to the SmartHire program—a public-private partnership funded by the State of California and Santa Cruz County that pre-screens and subsidizes qualified candidates for their first six months on the job—as an incentive for employers to hire people with records.

Since October 2015, The Council of State Governments Justice Center has been inventorying and analyzing the impact and implementation considerations of various policy options intended to increase employment opportunities for people with criminal records. This month, the CSG Justice Center will release Government Incentives for Hiring Workers with Criminal Records, a fact sheet designed for policymakers regarding hiring incentives and subsidized job programs.

Building Futures was co-sponsored by the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce, Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Development Center, Workforce Investment Board, Santa Cruz County, Community Action Board, Goodwill Central Coast, and United Way of Santa Cruz County and is part of the growing conversation across the country between business leaders and policymakers on improving employment outcomes for individuals with criminal records. It is modeled after an event held in June 2014 at the White House and is inspired by “State Pathways to Prosperity,” an initiative of the Council of State Governments, which is supported by the CSG Justice Center’s Reentry and Employment project.

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