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A broad coalition of business groups is pledging to hire workers with criminal backgrounds in the wake of a new federal law aimed at reducing incarcerations.
The movement is spearheaded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, who enlisted the support of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, the National Restaurant Association and the American Staffing Association have signed on as well. Together, the groups represent businesses that employ roughly 60 percent of the American workforce.
"As business people, we have so many opportunities we aren't even aware of to make our country better and help people improve their lives. This is one of them," Koch said in a statement. "I challenge all of us, as business leaders, to take this important next step together."
Koch announced the initiative Sunday at a retreat in California, with a direct appeal to donors to his network of philanthropy and advocacy groups. More than 700 people attended the meeting, representing businesses that employ more than 2 million workers.
The Koch network has long pushed to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system. The group met with President Donald Trump at the White House last spring on the issue, leveraged relationships with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to make a deal. The result was a rare bipartisan bill that Congress passed last year, just days before the government shutdown began.
The First Step Act reduces prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses and gives judges more discretion in setting those sentences. It also eliminates the "three-strikes" rule that imposed a mandatory life sentence for three or more drug convictions. The sentence is now 25 years.
The legislation could also have an impact on the nation's workforce, with roughly 650,000 people released from prison each year. SHRM Chief Executive Johnny Taylor said businesses have a responsibility to ensure former inmates have the opportunity to find a job and stay out of jail.
"Legislation is interesting, but it ultimately only matters if it results in behavioral change," Taylor said. "We can have a narrative around the importance of hiring the formerly incarcerated, and it really can all fall apart if employers -- primarily HR professionals -- don't make it happen."
The new business coalition is committing to using SHRM's guidelines for recruiting and hiring workers with criminal backgrounds. Taylor said it includes best practices for identifying candidates even before they are released from prison and having open discussions about the past.
"You don't have to lie. You can tell these people your true status," Taylor said, speaking about potential employees. "Just that alone would make that person more likely to apply than not, because they're not worried about being rejected."
The move also comes as businesses struggle to fill open jobs amid a shortage of workers. According to government data, there are nearly 6.9 million open positions, but only 6.3 million people who are unemployed. That means even if everyone were hired, business would still come up short.
Taylor said companies have to get more creative -- and that includes taking another look at qualified candidates who may have criminal pasts. Koch characterized it as a common-sense but critical next step.
"If all of us got fully engaged, think of the difference we could make to create second chances, reduce crime and poverty, and improve the quality of life for so many people," Koch said in a statement.