Proximate leader in criminal justice reform, reentry architecture, workforce development, and inclusive impact strategy. Passionate about leveling the playing field to maximize potential and possibility for justice-involved people. Solution-driven and adamant about kicking in doors of access to tech and desegregating opportunity, the future of work, and economic mobility for marginalized communities. As a servant leader, Ken approaches the work with an insistence on human-centered solutions and embraces our community's most pressing challenges.Follow Follow
Storytelling about Checkr.org With Ken Oliver
Welcome to the Use Case Podcast, episode 163. This week we have storytelling about Checkr.org with Ken Oliver. During this episode, Ken and I talk about how practitioners make the business case or the use case for purchasing Checkr.org.
Ken is the executive director of Checkr.org and an expert in all things criminal justice reform and workforce development. His passion to build a fairer future by designing technology to create opportunities for all really comes through during the podcast.
Give the show a listen and please let me know what you think.
Show length: 32 minutes
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Welcome to RecruitingDailys Use Case Podcast, a show dedicated to the storytelling that happens or should happen when practitioners purchase technology. Each episode is designed to inspire new ways and ideas to make your business better as we speak with the brightest minds in recruitment in HR Tech. That’s what we do. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
Ladies and gentlemen this is William Tincup. You’re listening to The Use Case Podcast. I have been looking forward to this podcast all day long, staring at the clock, waiting for the clock to move. And I can’t wait to jump into it. We have a great guest. We’re going to be talking about a newly minted foundation, that’s going to be doing some really cool work that we should all be paying attention to. So without any further ado, Ken, would you introduce both yourself, but also Checkr.org?
Sure. My name is Ken Oliver. Thank you for having me William. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m the newly anointed Executive Director for Checkr.org. Checkr.org. for those of you in your audience that don’t know was formed really as a natural outgrowth of Checkr’s corporate mission, which was to create and lead a fair future of work for all.
So let’s just start with the fair future for all and kind of unpack that for the audience and because they might not understand what the terms… what they really mean, so let’s do that. When you say fair future for all, what do you mean?
Sure. Well, the spearhead to what we talk about, when we talk about Fair Chance, is really Fair Chance employment under the California Fair Chance Act, specifically targets formerly incarcerated people or people who have criminal records and deconstructs the barriers that they have to access livable wage employment. As a background check company, we saw first hand the damage that background checks were doing to people who had some type of criminal record. And in many cases, these were people who had nominal criminal records or criminal records where there was no charges filed, but just the record itself, act as a barrier for people accessing employment. In fact, there’s 70 million people in America that have some form of a misdemeanor or arrest or some other type of mistake that’s occurred on the criminal record. And it’s a terrible barrier that stops people from being able to access the middle age economy… middle class economy, excuse me.
Well, let’s say we’re 330 million… 70 million that’s a big chunk and not all crimes are equal, right?
So, I mean, that’s one of the things that’s interesting about that fact is if you’re dinging people, if they have a criminal record, regardless of a Class C misdemeanor or a Class A felony, you’re losing out on a lot of talent… just accessing that talent because of how you’re excluding them from the process of getting that… now they still might not get the job like that. There’re no guarantees, but it’s opening up that funnel, the front end of the funnel, to then give yourself more people so that can possibly move through the funnel and move through the process. So how do we kind of unlearn what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years where it’s a Scarlet letter, right?
Somebody that’s been an incarcerated gets this big, giant criminal… gets a big giant C carved on their chest or on their forehead. And we then put them into a part of society where second class citizens… and then we make it really hard for them to then actually be productive and be a part of society. So how do we unlearn? What’s… one of the goals of the foundation is to help people understand kind of what this is, but also kind of relearn, unlearn, or relearn kind of how these things operate.
Sure. So I get asked that question a lot and I appreciate you asking it. I think the first thing we have to do is realize what the truths are about mass incarceration in the criminal justice system.
The ’80s and the ’90s saw unprecedented waves of the war on drugs, locking people up for a half ounce of marijuana, which in most states now is legal for people to have. More than a million people have non-binding drug offenses on their record that stopped them from accessing things like employment, and housing. And so really unpacking… educating business owners, HR departments, talent folks, about this untapped talent pool and about why we should look past a particular background check when we’re looking at talent, because what’s on a person’s background check may not necessarily be indicative of whether they’re the best employee for the job.
And one of the things that we advocate for, not only on the Checkr side, but on the foundation side, is best person for the job. We’re not saying that you should give a person an upper hand because they’ve suffered a criminal record. We’re saying that you should look past that if the situation matches up and we have all different types of literature and education material that match the crime versus how much time is passed by, whether that matches up with a particular job that a person is applying for and really education. And when you educate people, they start to understand, wait a minute, what I was previously looking at, or what I saw in the wire, or America’s most wanted, really doesn’t add up to what the reality is… boots on the ground for my talent pool.
What’s interesting is, you got a couple things with mass incarceration that we need to unpack for the audience. It was also disproportionate, both in the ’80s and ’90s, well held today, disproportionate for people of color.
So not only was it mass incarceration… so there’s a reason there’s a word mass in front of it, but it was also disproportionate for some communities. And so on one side, as a society we’re saying, hey, diversity and inclusion is important. Okay, cool. On the other side, we’re still operating kind of… maybe not exactly like we did in the ’80s, and ’90s, but it’s probably still disproportionate.
Absolutely. The war on drugs and mass incarceration affected black and brown people at five and six times more than they affected white Americans. And I think the question we have to ask ourselves is knowing that 95% of people that we arrest or incarcerate are going to return to the community… if we aren’t providing the opportunity for people to rebuild their lives. Because this really isn’t an act of charity, it’s about redemption. It’s about people being able to move on and past a mistake or a choice that they’ve made. And in some cases, not even a mistake or a choice, but a mistake on the law enforcement side. What are we saying? And where are we pushing those people to in the margins, if we’re not allowing them to access livable wage employment, if we’re not allowing them access to housing. Major cities… look around the United States today and see what’s happening with the homeless crisis.
I’m here in the San Francisco Bay area and 70% of the homeless population are people that have been justice involved or have had some type of contact with law enforcement. So when you think about that, people complain and think that these folks are just out there be because they’re lazy or they don’t want to work. In most cases, it’s because they’ve been denied access.
Basic human needs. And so I think we really have to decide as a community and as a society that the purpose of prison really probably shouldn’t be punishment. It should be about transformation and redemption and rehabilitation. And once a person goes through that process, they pay their debt to society. We have to allow people to rebuild their lives and build a family and be a positive asset to the community.
Well, if we don’t, it’s recidivism, right?
This is what happens, is somebody comes out, they try and they want to actually get a job. They want to actually… they don’t want to go back to prison. Anybody that’s been to prison, you don’t want to go back to prison nine times out of ten, or at least a high percentage of the people don’t want to go back to prison. But again, if you’re just hitting closed doors, then homeless… obviously that’s an option, but also the life of crime is still there.
And so some people get thrown back into the game and it’s, well, I can’t, I’ve tried. And I can’t do it this way. And so I got to put food on the table. I got to do whatever. And so they find themselves in… not because they wanted to, but because that was the only viable option for them.
And I think it’s important for people in society to understand why crime happens in the first place. The number one driver of crime in this country is poverty. And so when you think about some of the things that grow out of poverty, you’re really talking about access, right? And so when people don’t have access, they turn to things like medicating with substance abuse, they turn to things like medicating with alcohol, they turn to the streets and commit crimes, et cetera, and so forth. Usually when people are given access to the things that most of us take for granted every day, those people live a law abiding life. And in fact, they’re usually more loyal, more trustworthy, harder workers, because they’ve been given an opportunity and a shot when they haven’t previously been given one. So it’s important for us to really understand that if we want our communities to be safer, if we want people to have opportunity, we have to open up the doors and stop pushing people into functional poverty.
And again people think about poverty and again, it’s a big problem, right? Plato wrote about the homeless in the Republic 2000 years ago. So I mean, this isn’t a new problem. However, we can stop avoiding it. And I think that’s one of the things that you’re kind of nibbling at is that you can’t avoid poverty. You we’ve actually got to tackle it. You want to tackle these other things, the cause and effect. You can, but you’ve actually got to tackle poverty. However, you tackle it… there’re thousands of different ways to tackle poverty, but you’ve got to tackle it.
Sure. And you said something earlier that that caught my eye I’d just like to double back on and double click on. And that is about this idea of second class citizenry. And there was this notion in the Kings England about a civil debt, where a person committed an infraction and they would lose all civil rights in perpetuity. And that’s kind of followed us over here.
In the last 700 years. And so I think that as a progressive society, we have to get away from this notion of othering and exiling populations of people and really think more inclusively about how we look at the criminal justice system. I’m mean, the reality is, a criminal record shouldn’t be a life sentence to unemployment or lack of housing or any other basic services, like I said, that we typically are accustomed to and Checkr, the foundation specifically, is committed to making Fair Chance hiring, Fair Chance housing and wraparound services for folks to get back on their feet and be a viable employee, a standard business practice across this country.
This mirrors an experience that I had. I went to Hamilton. It’s a prison unit down by College Station. It’s a small prison, but I was down there for a business case competition… the guys… it was a male prison. So the guys went through kind of building a business case and then there was these judges. I was one of the judges. So man, there’s nothing like… for anybody that’s not been to prison, there’s nothing like hearing that door close, like that sound of the door closing behind you. And that says terror. I mean just pure terror through anybody. It did for me at least.
But one of the things I found as I interacted with these guys through their business cases is most of them are entrepreneurs.
You know what I mean? We got really deep into the businesses and they’re really interesting businesses, but they’re all just really entrepreneurial. And I’m… this is just… if we just channel this in a different way. Yeah, they’re entrepreneurial because they’re all in the corner. They’re selling whatever. I get it. Because they have to put money on the table. However, they’re entrepreneurs… at the root of this is entrepreneurship. We should be fostering that.
That’s right. One of the things I’d love to be able to touch on if I could, for just a minute… Checkr started out on this mission of Fair Chance, about five years ago and now dedicate 5% of their staffing needs to justice involved people-
Oh, that’s cool.
Keeping up the records. And the interesting thing about that is that those employees have the highest promotion rate. They have the least attrition rate. They’ve been the loyalist. They’re punctual, on time, more than any other workers. And I would encourage businesses to really look at some of the statistics that are out there around hiring people who haven’t had opportunity before. I don’t look at folks who have a criminal record, I look at people who’ve been denied an opportunity. And when you give someone an opportunity and you embrace them and you lift them up, then usually good things happen out that. It’s usually when you marginalize communities of people, right, that we get bad results.
And so it’s actually a great business case for businesses. And there’re several businesses across this country. Unusual suspects like Koch industries who dedicated… JP Morgan, who’s dedicated 2000 workers to be formerly incarcerated justice involved people, Nehemiah Manufacturing in the Midwest, 70% of their workforce is formerly incarcerated people. So there’s a lot of great companies that are taking this trip and they’re finding just great, great results to fill some of that talent void that’s out there right now.
Well, again, hiring is… it should be, let’s just say it appropriately… it should be about skills and experience and potentiality. That’s what it should be. And, again, if a person doesn’t have the skills yet at this point, or that he might not have the experience at this point, but have the potential. And I think that’s one of the things of unlocking this particular talent community is looking at the untapped potential of all of these folks that is there and it’s just waiting to be tapped. It’s just sitting there. And it’s because of our preconceived notions and also 700 years of just doing it the wrong way and thinking about it the wrong way. I know folks, when they listen to this, I know folks will think, well, all that sounds great, but how do I trust those folks?
That’ll be one line. That’ll be one narrative. The other is okay, but there are certain crimes that are so heinous that I can’t ever… I can’t, it’ll be a PR nightmare if we hire someone who’s been in prison for rape, let’s just do something really extreme. And so they’ll see it from that perspective and go, there’s just… even if they’re loyal, even if they’re great, even they get promoted, even they turn out being the best employee we’ve ever had, that’s just the potentiality of the risk… of that becoming a story. We just can’t have that. So what do you say… because you hear this all the time.
So what do you say to folks when they think about trust or they think about certain crimes in a certain way?
Well, what I try to do is get folks to take away their personal perspectives. It really isn’t about my personal opinion or your personal opinion about a specific crime. The data in the statistics show that people who have committed the most violent crimes, usually committed those crimes as acts of passion. They have this lowest recidivism rate of any other population in this country.
Oh, that’s interesting.
That’s hard for us to get our heads around because we think, oh, this person just did 20 years for committing murder, right.? But that person has a less likely chance of committing another crime in their lifetime than a person who stole a pack of cigarettes out of the store, who, ironically, has the highest recidivism rate.
I don’t know if that’s tied to the amount of time a person is incarcerated or people aging out of crimes or not. But the data shows over the last few decades that those are the safest people.
Oh, that’s interesting. This could be mind blowing for the audience.
It’s very mind blowing because you hear people talk about often, well, we’ll hire non-violent offenders.
Actually non-violent offenders have the highest recidivism. They have the highest-
You’re actually technically hiring the wrong people.
Right. So what I try to do is first… you don’t look at it based on our knee jerk responses to what a crime is. We all dislike things like rape. We all dislike things like violent assaults or child molestation and those types of things. And there’s actually a process that the EEOC says to go through… where it’s nature, time nature. How long ago did they do it? What was the nature of the crime? How is it related to the current job? You’ll find that if a person committed a murder and they’re applying for a job in HR or in some other type of field, that really has nothing to do with the job capability.
Or what’s required for the job. And so now we’re injecting our own bias if we reject that candidate because we may feel a particular way or maybe my cousin or I had a close friend that was a victim of a crime. And now I’m putting my own bias into the hiring process, which is something that we shouldn’t be doing. So I encourage folks to really look at the formula and look at the data and educate themselves about who you should be hiring. And that’s to say, you shouldn’t hire everybody.
If you have a company that has kids in the office and has family days and that type of thing, you’re probably not going to want to hire somebody that just got out of prison for child molestation three years ago.
Not enough time has gone by, we don’t know what the risk is. It’s a legal nightmare if you come in here and touch somebody’s kid… we get that. We’re talking about doing it safely, doing it intelligently and being thoughtful about the way that we screen candidates.
Well, I think the… getting back to the title of Fair Chance, it’s just giving people a shot. You’re right. There’re no guarantees. There’s no guarantees in anything, but there’s no guarantees. It’s just giving more people an opportunity and a chance. And again, it’ll shake out. Who’s going to… who will win the job… again, if we can strip away the biases that we have, hopefully the best candidate will win the job. Great. Fantastic. But why are we excluding the entire 70 million people? Why are we excluding this entire population because we have pre preconceived notions or ideas?
And not only that, William. I think if I can just build a little bit on that.
I’ve yet to hear anybody offer what a great alternative would be. If you don’t want people to live in housing, because housing has so many restrictions about… if you have a criminal record you can’t rent a place or buy a place, then you don’t want to let people work. And then you also complain about the social safety net that we’re we’re giving away money from folks and doing all this other kind of stuff. What is the alternative other than to embrace the idea of redemption in giving people second chances? I don’t see a viable alternative. And I think that the data shows from a business side and from a social side that giving people opportunity and giving people access is how you create a safer society on both sides for the people that have committed crimes when they’re rebuilding their lives. And it makes people not want to commit crimes in the future. Because now they got a job that’s paying $70,000 a year and they value that more than anything they’ve ever had in their life.
Well it’s interesting. Second chances… America loves second chance stories. That’s what the deep irony of the conversation is. We love second chances. We love people that have the redemption story. I mean there’re gillions of movies that are made about second chances. We love consuming stories of people that failed, came back and succeeded. But I have to think, and I’m not staring at data, but I have to think that there’re other things involved, whether or not it’s gender or race or socioeconomic or a combination of some of these things, but all second chance stories aren’t equal. If that makes sense.
So how do we… go ahead. No, go ahead Ken.
No, I was just going to say, I think that there’s plenty of political literature that’s been written, especially recently, tying in how things that emanated from slavery have turned into mass incarceration policies, etcetera.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, outlines that pretty well. So does Bryan Stevenson’s, EJI Museum, down there in Alabama. But I think getting even past the issue of race, because I actually think that this particular issue is bigger than race.
That’s hard to say in a society that’s-
No, no, no. I understand.
Because there’s plenty of white men and women.
Who’ve been in prison and suffer from these consequences. There’s plenty of Latinx and Hispanic men that suffer from this. Asians and blacks. And so it’s a problem that crosses the color line and I really think it’s a matter of us creating villains in society.
It goes back to what I said earlier about othering. America also loves to other people.
When 9/11 happened, we started othering people from the Middle East.
That’s right. We needed to have a villain. There had to be a villain in the story.
When COVID happened, we started villainizing the Asian population. When AIDS happened, we started villainizing Africans and saying it came from Africa and that type of stuff. So, I think we need to get away from this notion of othering folks if we can and realize that it’s a lose-lose proposition when we do that. We lose, because as a community we’re not as enriched by diversity and inclusion and different perspectives and different people. And on the other side, we lose because we pay a whole lot of money. I mean, in California alone, this year, we’re paying $17 billion for a correction system that equates about $150,000 per person, a year, to put a person in a cage. Now, most of these folks who have nonviolent offenses, low level drug offenses, don’t need to be in prison for 10, 15, 20, 30 years at a clip of a million and a half to two million a person right over that.
So are we doing enough to innovate when it comes to human transformation? Are we doing enough to innovate when it comes leveling the playing field with opportunity? I mean, here in Silicon valley, we innovate on what to do with bubble gum wrappers. And how many different devices can we turn that into? And how many different uses can we have, but we don’t really do that with human beings.
And I think that if we can open our hearts and open our minds, it’s a better proposition, when we focus on investing in people, you just get a better result. It’s been shown over time.
I think you nailed it earlier when you hit on poverty. If we solve for poverty, it’s algebra and we solve for poverty and we work to fix poverty, it raises all boats. Everybody. And again, like you said, it transcends race or creator, religion, or some of the other… sexual orientation, etcetera. It transcends those things because we get to the heart of and you’ve… fix poverty and you’ve fixed a lot of these. You’ve gone at least a far way to fixing a lot of these things but I loved… the idea of othering… it’s so deeply rooted in theater and in music and in all the arts that there’s a protagonist and an antagonist. And in this particular case, we make the antagonist people of color, or male people of color, let’s get real specific.
And really the antagonist is poverty.
That’s right. That’s right. It’s not about that person’s bad. I’m good. And you tend to think, oh, that person’s bad. Let’s throw… human being aren’t part of the throw away population. We shouldn’t throw people away.
And usually if we understand what’s happening in our society… and many of us operate daily with closed eyes, like the war on drugs and mass incarceration in communities of color across this country was real… where people were scooped up and thrown in prison for things that people are making millions of dollars on now, when it comes to the marijuana industry, for example. People are still in prison for having an ounce or two of weed at the wrong place at the wrong time, in this social structure, while in the Bay Area, you have a weed shop on every corner, that’s legal and people are buying it all day long. So what are we saying? And what are we doing to these populations that we put these policies in place 20 years ago, 25 years ago, three strikes laws, where we were locking people up for stealing a pack of cigarettes and giving them life in prison. It was just ridiculous. And to your point, race had a lot to do with that, because when you look at-
The faces and the bodies, most of the time, they were black and brown.
Oh, you could tell just… when crack first hit in the late ’80s or mid to late ’80s, I saw it in Dallas, but you saw it across the country. It’s just… you could have an eight ball of Coke and get one sentence. You could have an eight ball of crack and you get a completely different sentence. And that was all based on race. There’s no way to not say that. That just is. And so now how do we undo… how do we unpack that? And again, I like your take on… listen going back, looking at how people make money now off of the legalization of marijuana, all the people that are in jail for marijuana related crimes, why are they in jail?
Right. And why are we as taxpayers paying for that?
Right. When my roads are full of potholes.
Our education system stinks for the most part. I mean, there’s so many-
No, no. You can just go ahead and say stinks. Hard stop. Yes. Stinks. It does. It fails us. I mean, every election we talk about how important it is and then we don’t do anything about it.
And I mean, with what you’re… and Checkr’s trying to actually do something about, is to change the narrative. Change some of the narrative around Fair Chance. And again open up… for folks that are doing the math at home, 70 million of 330 million, you’re dealing with a large number of people that you’re just knocking out of the process without even really thinking about knocking out of the process. So really what Ken’s suggesting, and I think rightfully so, is that you just rethink this population and figure out, okay, okay. What do we do… we don’t have to go back and go guilt and all that other stuff, like what we’ve done wrong. How could we change this so that we give more people a Fair Chance and a fair shot?
Well, a lot of it too, William, is buried in policy. I mean, in the United States now there’s 48,000… I just want to pause in that number, 48,000 legal barriers to housing and employment for people who have a felony conviction. So what happens is, that people are serving actually a second prison sentence.
They’ve served their time.
They’ve went to prison for whether it’s a day or 10 years, and now society is locked them out of 48,000 places.
Now, see, I think that gets back to what you said in England. I think that actually… I think that’s deeply rooted. Because it should be, you’ve paid your debt to society blank screen.
That should be… I mean, that’s, I think if you’re to ask most Americans, it’s, yes you paid your debt, you spent seven years for the crime. You did the crime, you did the time. Fantastic. Done blank, blank. They don’t know. There’s no way most Americans know that 48,000… I just can’t believe that they know that those things exist.
Well, what I tell people, and you said it earlier about the Scarlet letter, which is a great metaphor, is I ask people, think out when you were 18, 19, 20, just think the worst thing that you ever did, no matter it was a white lie, most people have done things they regret.
I’m just glad there wasn’t video then.
That’s the truth, right? Imagine though, if you had to answer every question about a job interview, a girlfriend, applying for a house, to get a checkbook, and you had to have this Scarlet letter around your neck that said, oh, by the way, 10 years ago, I told a horrific lie, right? Cheated on my girlfriend or stole something when I wasn’t supposed to… if you had to lead with that everywhere you do life, it would be a disaster. Right?
Yeah. You’re pushing a ball in the interview process. You’re pushing a boulder up the hill.
That’s right. From the get.
Yes. And so, I mean, I’m thinking about, applications that have to check that box, if you’ve been convicted of whatever. And it’s, why is that box there?
Right. Well, a lot of states have started to move in the direction of not requiring employers or-
Or not requiring employers not to have that box-
On applications, but that’s really only a first step because it just delays the inevitable denial.
And what we’re propagating is a. yes, you should look at the background, but because a person has a background, doesn’t necessarily disqualify them from a job, and it shouldn’t, and an opportunity for them to build a career. And so you should look past that particular record in most cases and figure out if they’re the best person for the job based on their qualifications and based on who they are today, not oh, 10 years ago, you were living in East Oakland and you got into a fight that you got arrested for or something else happened, right? So yeah, that’s what we encourage folks to do.
I love that.
We utilize technology and leverage technology through expungement services and other things to try to level the playing field for folks.
Well, brother, you are doing wonderful work. And I know you got a lot of stuff in front of you… you’re starting your journey. And I just appreciate it. I appreciate what y’all are doing. I appreciate just the effort and talking about and getting people to kind of rethink the way that they think about this entire class pool that’s just waiting… sitting there waiting for opportunity.
It’s just such a great topic. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Ken.
I appreciate you, William. Thank you for having me and thank you for your audience for listening.
Absolutely. And thanks for everyone listening to The Use Case Podcast until next time.
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The Use Case Podcast
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.
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