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Morning Shift

Two Employers Make The Case For Hiring Ex-Offenders

Tens of thousands of inmates are released from Illinois prisons each year. Many Illinois officials support research that suggests access to employment plays a major role in keeping people from returning to a life of crime. However, studies have found that a criminal record may also make it more difficult to find a job.

But not all employers are hesitant to hire people who’ve been convicted of a felony. As part of WBEZ’s ongoing series on Chicago’s gun violence, Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia talked to two employers who make it their business to give jobs to people who have spent time behind bars:

  • Tom Decker, owner of Chicago Green Insulation, an environmentally sustainable spray foam insulation company based in suburban Waukegan.
  • Pete Leonard, founder of I Have a Bean, a coffee-roasting plant based in suburban Wheaton.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

On deciding to hire ex-felons

Pete Leonard: Before 2006, my view of people who were felons, people who had committed crimes, was probably like most of society’s: I didn’t want anything to do with any of them. But, it turned out that I had a relative that I watched get arrested and go to prison, and then what happened to his life trying to find employment after getting out of prison … It was virtually impossible. In spite of the fact that [my brother-in-law] has got a Mensa-level IQ, he’s a mathematician, he’s a database programmer, a website developer — so he’s got all those skills, but nobody would take a chance on hiring him, only because he had to check the box on the application that said “Have you been convicted of a felony?”

Tony Sarabia: I understand there was a time when he went for a job interview and the woman from HR saw that box checked. What happened?

Leonard: Yeah, she saw the box checked, and she loved him up until that point, and then she saw the box checked on the application, and she looked at him and said, “Sorry, we’re going to have to go in a different direction.” She didn’t ask any questions, didn’t want to know anything about what had happened, his story, who he was — any of those things, it didn’t matter. She saw the check mark, and that was it.

On calls to “ban the box” from job applications

Leonard: I think it’s an attitude that needs to change, not necessarily the box. The fact is, the box only changes when in the interview process you can ask the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” It doesn’t remove that responsibility from an employer. And the fact is Google tells you everything about anybody. So whether the box is there or not is really immaterial. So it’s the attitude of employers that needs to change.

Pete Leonard, founder of I Have a Bean coffee roasters, decided to hire ex-offenders after seeing his brother-in-law, who was convicted of a felony, struggle to find employment. (Courtesy Pete Leonard)

On finding potential employees

Tom Decker: I’ve got quite a network of people, from faith leaders right on to social workers and teachers who know my name and number, and they give me a call. Many of them I don’t have a position for — we’re a small company, only half-a-dozen employees — but one of my favorite calls I get pretty much once a month is from a group of inmates … down in Statesville who call me up and say, “Look, here’s my situation, and I was told that you should be my first phone call because you’ll actually not hang up on me. And though I may not have the skills that you’re looking for, I was looking for a successful first phone call post-incarceration.”

Leonard: We get calls at the company from everyone from judges to parole officers to pastors to grandmas, brothers — it seems like everybody these days knows or is related to somebody who’s in prison. So, it’s not something that we have to actively go out and search for people. They are so desperate that they are searching everywhere to find anybody that will talk to them.

On the disconnect between workers and employers

Leonard: There definitely is a disconnect, but it goes both ways. There are so many organizations that are desperate to find companies that will hire a post-prison person. ... But the reality is they may hire one person, or they may have hired one person out of 600 ... So you start going through the list as somebody with a record, and you start getting rejection after rejection after rejection, anyway. And pretty soon, your attitude is: Nobody wants to talk to me. The fact is there’s a ton of untapped skill in post-prison people that businesses are ignoring or not able to take advantage of because they simply stop at the box.

On the need to shift priorities

Leonard: We’re so intent on punishing people and making sure they do the time for doing the crime — and I think that’s still important to do. But once they get out, take the onus off and let somebody be who they were supposed to be. Shifting money from incarceration to what happens after and what happens before would greatly reduce the prison population.

On some of the benefits of working with post-prison folks

Leonard: For me, one the of the best joys of doing what I do is the life change that I get to see in people that we employ. When they first come in, their shoulders are hunched, their eyes are downcast … by the time they leave I Have a Bean, their heads are up, their eyes are up, their eyes are bright, they have hope for the future — and most times, they’re able to move on to a job that is more in line with some of the other skills and talents that they might have.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button above to hear the entire segment.

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