Van Jones thinks you should hire the formerly incarcerated

The former Obama advisor says if you don’t, “the risk is that you’ve missed out on genius”

During a brief address in San Francisco last Thursday, activist and pundit Van Jones—perhaps by accident, perhaps not—let it slip that Alicia Keys would be involved in some kind of new initiative to promote employment opportunities for people with criminal histories. He quickly told the crowd that he wasn’t supposed to say anything about that yet.

In an interview after his address, I asked him about it. “Yeah, I’m not going to make this announcement sitting in a little room with you, eating a tuna sandwich,” he said. He did let slip a couple of general details, though: the initiative will involve other celebrities, and it will be aimed, at least in part, at getting big companies to hire people with criminal backgrounds.

He claims a worker-retention rate of 77 percent, while the restaurant industry as a whole is beset by a turnover rate of about 72 percent.

To people who are working to increase opportunities for those re-entering the general population, that goal is crucial. The event Jones spoke at, the Second Chance Summit, was put on by the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, a nonprofit funded by the country’s largest producer of sliced organic bread.

Dave’s Killer Bread might have been the largest company taking part in the well-attended event. Nearly all the companies making presentations were small and mid-sized ones, mainly involved in food, including a restaurateur, a coffee roaster, and an outfit that makes Prison Bars, a snack product with the slogan “Criminally Delicious.”

That the foodservice business was well-represented at the summit should come as no surprise: restaurants and institutional foodservice operations are prime sources of entry-level jobs, with, generally, a lot of turnover, and hence a lot of opportunity. Also, many formerly incarcerated individuals are experienced in the field. Foodservice is a major function of every prison, and prisoners often get training and work experience while inside. The restaurant industry “just lends itself so well to this,” said Emma Rosenbuch, owner of Cala, a San Francisco restaurant. Nearly three-quarters of her staff were once incarcerated.

Foodservice also teaches basic soft skills in a way that many other industries don’t. Often, when a former inmate starts work at Cala, “they’re terrified to speak to guests,” Rosenbush said. But soon enough, they become comfortable with it. That makes them more qualified for any customer-facing job, and many other service positions. “Really, the whole job is just taking care of people,” she said.

People with criminal backgrounds also make up about 70 percent of the workforce at Hot Chicken Takeover, a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. “Our business depends on raising that number,” said owner Joe DeLoss, who gave himself the title “head fryer.” More formerly incarcerated workers are better for business, he said, because of their loyalty. He claims a worker-retention rate of 77 percent, while the restaurant industry as a whole is beset by a turnover rate of about 72 percent.

Many companies remain hesitant to get involved.

Missing from the summit roster were bigger outfits like McDonald’s, Yum Brands, or Wal-Mart. Although a lot of research seems to indicate that hiring former inmates is not only good for society, it’s often good for business, many companies remain hesitant to get involved. Among Jones’ multiple projects is Cut50, where he is president and co-founder. That organization is working to reduce America’s prison population by half, largely through granting clemency, particularly to people convicted of non-violent offenses like drug possession.

For the moment, though, a major problem with America’s incarceration fetish is that, once they are released, people with criminal histories often can’t find jobs or housing—and they usually need one to find the other. At the summit, several of them, now gainfully employed, shared their stories, as did several employers. Watch this space for an upcoming feature on this subject.

“I don’t know if you’ve met many millennials. They have many attributes, but loyalty is not one of them.”

The central issue for employers, Jones noted both in his talk and in the interview, is trust. But, he said, that’s an issue for employers whether they’re hiring people who were once incarcerated or people in the general population. “In every group, you’ve got people that suck,” he said. But among the advantages of alternative hiring, he said, is that “You’re hiring someone who nobody else would hire.” He asked the crowd to compare that to another group: “I don’t know if you’ve met many millennials,” he said. “They have many attributes, but loyalty is not one of them.”

And further, he said, there’s a greater, if also more intangible risk involved in excluding ex-cons as hiring prospects: “The risk is that you’ve missed out on genius.”

Dan Mitchell has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Civil Eats, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. He is based in Oakland, Calif.