New Hampshire is grappling with two separate, but not entirely unconnected, problems: the opioid epidemic and a workforce shortage. It is old news that New Hampshire is one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. While the epidemic is first and foremost a health crisis, it also has a criminal justice component. More people have and are acquiring a criminal record because of it, the impact of which goes far beyond any incarceration handed down by a court.
A criminal record brings a host of collateral consequences. For one, it significantly reduces opportunities for employment, often for years or even indefinitely. People with a criminal record are more likely to be unemployed, and when they are employed, they earn 40 percent less on average than someone without a record. Families, communities and even businesses feel the loss in earning potential. One estimate found that over $78 billion was lost in national GDP in 2014 due to the inability of people with a criminal record to find jobs.
The opioid epidemic is occurring at the same time as New Hampshire’s growing workforce shortage. The state’s unemployment rate was 2.7 percent as of June — the lowest in the country. One consequence of such low unemployment is that employers struggle to fill jobs. If you drive up the main street of many New Hampshire towns, it is not unusual to find “Help Wanted” signs in many windows. There are thousands of jobs going unfilled every day. The workforce shortage is so dire that it has been called a “threat” to economic expansion in our state. Put simply, New Hampshire needs workers.
Granite Staters with a criminal record are eager to work, available to work, but often kept from working. The barriers to employment for people with a record are plentiful. They include the box on many application forms asking if someone has a record, which is used as an automatic disqualifier by many employers. They also include restrictions by dozens of occupational licensing boards.
What is frustrating for workers with a criminal record is that these barriers apply regardless of what a person’s criminal record includes. Employers and licensing boards often do not stop to ask if a person was arrested for a violent crime or a misdemeanor, when the crime was committed or what the person has done since to rehabilitate themselves.
The decision to screen out potential employees who have any criminal record may sound like a means to identifying better employees. This is in part due to how embedded the stigma of a criminal record is in our culture. An employer may instinctively recoil at the idea of employing someone with a record, thinking of the worst crimes whenever the words “criminal record” appear or whenever the box is checked. The impact of hiring someone with a record, however, often defies the stigma.
Companies that make a point of hiring people with a record report that often such workers are particularly hard-working, loyal to the company and committed to being productive employees. They know they are working uphill every day.
Research, including by Johns Hopkins Health Resource Center, indicates that retention rates for those with criminal records are higher than those without records. For example, one company adopted a program to recruit employees with criminal records and reduced turnover from 25 percent to 11 percent.
There is also a social and community benefit to employing people with criminal records. Research shows that reliable employment is instrumental to successful re-entry and to reducing recidivism. As we confront the opioid epidemic, New Hampshire should consider reducing barriers to successful re-entry.
A significant step would be for New Hampshire to adopt fair chance hiring, namely by removing the box on application forms that applicants must check if they have a record. Thirty-one states and over 150 cities and counties have adopted fair chance hiring. Moreover, over 180 private companies have voluntarily implemented it, including Google, Starbucks, Pepsi, Koch Industries and Walmart. Fair chance hiring still allows businesses to ask about a criminal record during an interview and in no way requires that employers hire someone with a record. It simply affords applicants a chance to explain their record and have that record considered in the context of all their qualifications for the job.
Jeanne Hruska is policy director of ACLU-NH and Albert “Buzz” Scherr is a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.