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INDEPTH: Website offers some a second chance
Goshen News - 3/4/2023
Mar. 4—For Harley Blakeman, the mission of HonestJobs.com is a personal one.
That mission has come to Elkhart County and other parts of the Hoosier State.
Here are some of the ways having a felony myself makes me a better founder of a company solving this particular problem.
* Clarity. I have a compelling vision of the world I want to live in: "A society where every person with a criminal record has ample opportunity to thrive at work, at home, and in their communities." I'm obsessed with making that true for me, for my employees with felonies (i.e. the majority of my company), for our job seekers, and for the greater good.
* Credibility. I'm very open with my story and my struggles. My lived experience earns me credibility with investors, customers, employees, and the general public. This has helped with fund-raising, sales, marketing, and building and inspiring my team. I know my market and it's not hard to prove it.
* Insight. My hunches about what's needed, what's important, and what's urgent are very often right. For example, early on, I added an extensive resources database to our platform (for housing, food, and other basic needs). It costs money and isn't core to our business, but I know all too well that our job seekers need more than jobs.
* Persistence. Every successful startup founder believes in their company, sometimes irrationally so. Because of my deep, personal connection to the problem Honest Jobs is solving, I can't imagine doing anything else. I can't imagine not building technology and services to enable fair-chance hiring at scale. This isn't an idea or opportunity for me. I will do whatever it takes to solve this problem.
-Harley Blakeman, founder, HonestJobs.com
"I was actually a homeless teenager living in Florida," Blakeman said. "I was arrested for selling drugs and was sentenced to prison when I was 19."
Blakeman said that prison turned his life around. He earned his high school GED there and eventually earned a bachelor's degree from The Ohio State University.
Despite this, he still had a great deal of difficulty finding work.
"I was rejected for jobs about 100 times after graduating because of my criminal record," he said.
Blakeman researched the situation, and found that one in three Americans have criminal records, and 12% of the American population have felony convictions.
"All these people seemed to be living with the same problem I have, and it turns out they are," he said, adding that he also found that it takes an average of eight months for convicted felons to find employment after being released.
This inspired Blakeman to found HonestJobs.com in 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Described on its website as a fair-chance hiring platform, the program works as an online marketplace for people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. As Blakeman points out, this disproportionately means minorites, military veterans and members of LGBQT community.
Through the program, job seekers can sign up for free on its website and apply, including providing details about their own criminal background. The site can then show them how likely there are to make it though the background check process. At present, about 1,300 companies are part of the network.
Blakeman also discussed his program in the context of the First Step Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law Dec. 21, 2018.
"The act was the culmination of a bi-partisan effort to improve criminal justice outcomes, as well as to reduce the size of the federal prison population while also creating mechanisms to maintain public safety," according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons website.
"It's a tight labor market," Blakeman said in the recent trend regarding efforts to help the formerly incarcerated adjust to the workplace.
At the moment, the program is being promoted on tablets viewed by inmates at the Elkhart County Jail, who are eligible to apply and take part once they are released.
"The pilot program is launching at eight correctional facilities, with an expected expansion to 600,000 Securus tablets nationwide in the spring," said Media Relations Specialist Connor Penegar, who works with the program.
The Elkhart County Sheriff's Office described its role with HonestJobs.com.
"Elkhart County adopted the Securus tablets in 2021 which created access to communications such as e-messages and phone calls so they can stay connected with loved ones," a statement from the ECSO reads. "In addition to increased communication, one of the most important benefits of the tablet program is the free educational and reentry resources. Incarcerated individuals have access to free ebooks, KA lite videos, law library, religious materials, mental health and addiction podcasts and many other resources that are vital when preparing for a successful second chance."
No specific crime, including murder and sexual assault, in of itself disqualifies an HonestJobs.com applicant.
"We match people with opportunities," Blakeman said, adding that both an applicant's job skills and their criminal records are taken into consideration. "When they come home, they have a plan."
Alisha James is senior vice president and general manager of the Post-Incarceration Business Unit at Aventiv, which partners with HonestJobs.com.
"As an organization, we are committed to helping facilities transform from technology deserts to environments filled with digital tools and resources that support rehabilitative justice," James said by email. "By providing tablets to incarcerated individuals, they can stay connected with loved ones and have access to free tools and resources that will help them prepare for a successful reentry.
"Regardless of this support, the reality is that once released they encounter many hurdles, such as finding a place to live, transportation, health care and one of the most difficult is finding employment. Securing a job to support yourself, provide for your family, and build toward a successful second chance can be very challenging with a record. Honest Jobs can help. It was built specifically for justice-impacted people."
James added that the program currently serves 10 counties in Indiana.
"As we progress through the pilot phase for Honest Jobs, we look forward to adding the job search application on more tablets across the state and country by summer," she said.
"On our tablets we also make available religious services, addiction content, and inspirational podcasts from those who were previously incarcerated," she said. "Great content and greater access equals better preparation; and better preparation leads to lower recidivism."
James added that working on a reentry plan should begin on the first day of an inmate's incarceration, and reiterated Blakeman's overview of how the process works.
"We're always looking to work with like-minded organizations that help justice-impacted people have a successful second chance," she said. "When we engaged with Honest Jobs it was a natural fit. We partnered together to add the free job search tool on our tablets to give incarcerated individuals visibility to second-chance employers so they can prepare for applying and interviewing once released.
"Users simply open the application on the Securus tablet, filter by job title, keywords, ZIP code, and other criteria to see what openings are available for those with records. Since our tablets operate over a closed, secure infrastructure they cannot directly apply to positions while incarcerated, but they can see the listed qualifications for jobs and prepare to submit and interview once released."
To learn more, visit www.honestjobs.com/about-honest-jobs.
Steve Wilson is news editor for The Goshen News. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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