By the CSG Justice Center Staff
Leaders of 25 local businesses joined Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and other state and city officials on Oct. 14 to promote employment opportunities for people formerly involved with the justice system.
At “Pathways to Prosperity: Engaging Business Leaders in Milwaukee,” 90 attendees—including administrators from the Wisconsin corrections and labor departments—discussed the benefits and challenges associated with hiring people with criminal records.
With 30 percent of the people released by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections returning to the City of Milwaukee, Lt. Governor Kleefisch urged employers at the event to recognize their role in helping reintegrate these individuals into the community.
“Chances are, if you are an employer in this room, you are struggling to find good workers,” she said. “We have a solution for you, which may require a little open-mindedness, but it is potentially life-changing, and that is to be a mentor.”
Among the business leaders, Carrie Geenan, human resources director for Triada Employment Services, said a need exists for successful examples of employers who serve as local mentors, to help dispel fears among employers about hiring people with criminal records.
“There is a big perceived liability issue when it comes down to whether there will be an accident on the job or, in the case of a violent offender in some of these jobs where tensions run high, like on an assembly line where folks are working pretty quickly, will a person resort to violence when tempers flare?” Geenan said. “These perceptions, while not real, are still issues to employers, and it is important to talk with them and with their HR officials to let them know that these perceived liabilities should not be an issue, especially in cases where they are concerned with minor offenses that happened 15 or 20 years ago.”
Milwaukee County’s unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, markedly higher than the 3.9 percent rate across Wisconsin. And research shows that unemployment is even more prevalent for people with criminal records. But, for Mayor Barrett, “incredible positive momentum” is building in the city, a process that he hopes to replicate in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee.
“We need to make sure that people can have jobs and support their families, and that’s where you [employers] come in,” he said. “The more that we can work together to place people into jobs, the better off we are all going to be.”
Hosted by the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and the Milwaukee Reentry Network, the event was inspired by “State Pathways to Prosperity,” an initiative supported by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. The event was endorsed by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development; the Wisconsin Department of Corrections; the CSG Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC); the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Building Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program (WRTP/BIG STEP); the Center for Self-Sufficiency; and the Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services.
Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Representative Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) attended the event. Panelists included Department of Corrections Assistant Deputy Secretary Don Friske and Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson.
To coincide with the discussion, the NRRC released a factsheet, “The Consideration of Criminal Records in Hiring Decisions.” The guide advises policymakers on the impact of fair hiring practices on the reentry workforce, as well as considerations for successful implementation.