The Importance of Second Chances and Why They Matter to Everyone

This is the first of a three part series on giving in its different forms.

Have you ever spoken directly with a former inmate? When I recently had the opportunity to speak with a few still incarcerated through The Delancey Street Choices Program at San Mateo County Jail, I spent the morning worrying about what to say. I’d made my own mistakes, but none with the consequences of the 60 people I was about to talk to.

As I listened to their stories, what jumped out at me was how even after their debt to society had been paid, as a former felon, they are denied many basic civil rights — such as the right to vote or be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education or public benefits. It made the challenges they face putting their lives back together on the outside both real and stark. Since most of us don’t have the luxury of personal conversations with people in prison, I wanted to shine the light on the importance of second chances.

Giving people a second chance and reducing barriers to reintegration while obviously good for ex-prisoners, is also good for society. The National Employment Law Project found that employment was the single most important influence on decreasing recidivism. Even a 1 percent drop in the unemployment rate causes a 2 percent decline in burglary, a 1.5 percent decrease in larceny, and a 1 percent decrease in auto theft.¹ The recent article in the New York Times highlighted a program in St. Louis that introduces career planning to ex-prisoners, and helps them learn the specific skills they need for potential job opportunities. I’m inspired every time I read about such an effort. However, many men and women leaving prison don’t even get the chance for a job interview. Around 70% of employers run background checks,² and lacking any context for explanation, this rules out nearly any ex-prisoners an opportunity to turn their lives around.

The sharing economy, especially companies like AirBnB, Uber and Lyft, have increased focus on background checks to ensure public safety. It is important and right that public safety play a role in this rapidly growing area. But as we begin to learn the impact mass incarceration has on our society, it is also extremely important that we provide opportunities for people who have committed offenses. They need an on-ramp back into the economy and a way to explain their past so they can unlock their future. If given a chance, they want to earn their stripes, have jobs, raise kids, and pay taxes. Sharing economy companies, for example, could make giving someone a second chance a consumer’s’ choice directly. Imagine a world where backgrounds were transparent and you could make the decision on whether or not to give someone a second chance by giving him/her the option to build your Liatorp bookcase from IKEA.

One such effort within our own portfolio is GoodHire’s, True MeThe ‘Comments for Context’ feature lets people who have criminal records shed light on the circumstances of the offense and any steps they’ve taken since the conviction occurred. It provides transparency and context which helps job seekers provide employers with relevant, compelling information they can use to make better, more informed and fair hiring decisions. The comments are saved directly into their background check which ensures a more complete story than court records provide. Better information is an important start in creating an environment where people feel like they can give others the opportunity for second chances.

We live in a land of incredible opportunity. There is so much technology can do to provide context so people can make more informed, thoughtful employment or service decisions. Let’s all do more to offer people second chances. Wouldn’t you want one?

You can read the second of the three part series on giving in its different forms here: “What You Can Do to Close the Opportunity Gap and Why It’s Bigger Than You Think” and the third here: “Giving and Getting Engaged: Just Do It.”

¹ Identifying the Effect of Unemployment on Crime by Stephen Raphael and Rudolf Winter- Ebmer

² Research Supports Fair- Chance Policies by National Employment Law Project

³ GoodHire is owned by Inflection, in which Costanoa is an investor.