CINCINNATI — Every year, more than a million Americans are sent to jail. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are released from jail, having served their time. But finding a job with a criminal record remains daunting.
Melissa Davis won’t tell her whole story, but she’ll tell most of it.
“I had a dark side of me that came out that I didn't even know I was capable of," she said.
She graduated college with a degree in political science. But in her mid-twenties, she said, she was in a "terrible, terrible relationship, and I almost lost my life in that relationship. And once that happened, I could no longer make a positive decision in my own life.”
The decisions she made led to drug abuse and nonviolent crimes that put her in jail. She won’t say what she did. But today she can say she’s a manager and technician at Nehemiah Manufacturing, a Cincinnati company that for more than a decade has hired those newly returned.
“I can talk about my past experiences, and it’s not unheard of," Davis said. "I don’t feel like I’m going to be judged.”
No country in the world puts as large a share of its people behind bars as America. Researchers estimate tens of millions have a criminal record. And when those in jail return to society, they wind up unemployed at a rate nearly five times higher than everyone else.
Rayshun Holt has no trouble telling his story. When he was 15, he shot and killed a 14-year-old friend. He was convicted of murder and spent two decades in jail. He says he came out changed.
“I had done almost everything that I thought that I could do at the time to make the improvements necessary to make myself an asset," Holt said. "I wanted to restore dignity to a family name that, it seems, I had done everything in my power to destroy.”
Today Holt oversees a network of Cincinnati companies, Beacon of Hope, with the same mission as Nehemiah. His story is on his company's website. It sends a statement that even those who have committed the worst offenses can change and deserve jobs.
“When we talk about people with criminal records," Holt said, "who have had doors shut on their entire life, who have been told that they can’t win, when you genuinely reach out to those folks and embrace them, it’s just the right thing to do.”
A growing number of government leaders seem to agree. According to the National Employment Law Project, more than two-thirds of American states – and 150 cities and counties – have enacted laws to “ban the box”. These prevent public employers from requesting a person’s arrest record until after offering that person the job. Many extend these laws to private employers.
“Policy is fine," Holt said. "Laws can get passed. But when it’s said and done, it’s the businesses that are responsible for making those hires. We just need people in position to move the needle."
It’s why Holt tells his story. It’s why he asks those like Davis, who has found stability, to share theirs. They know what they can’t change … and what they can.
“I think I’ve shocked a lot of people upstairs," Davis said. "I'm a mom that does the regular 8-to-5 and is at the basketball games and the volleyball games and making their lunch. All that ties into stability. And I have that now.”