By Liz Moomey

KANNAPOLIS — Employers heard recommendations about how to hire North Carolinians with a criminal record Wednesday at the Equitable Hiring Employer Luncheon, held at the North Carolina Research Center at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, spoke about his father, who served prison time but was given an opportunity to work as a welder and eventually became vice president of the company.

“The state is taking aggressive actions to help people find jobs and do things to anchor people to the community rather than have them cycle back into the criminal justice system,” Bowes said.

Darryl Childers, a policy adviser to Gov. Roy Cooper, said in kicking off the luncheon that prison re-entry is a way to prevent previous offenders from returning to prison.

“The other part that the luncheon brings together is the work around prison re-entry,” Childers said. “That is referring to the system and all the pieces that we bring together to make sure people who have been released from prison have a chance to get their lives back on track so they don’t end up returning to prison.”

Wendi Eure, program coordinator for the N.C. Department of Commerce Re-entry Initiative, asked the employers what they think of when they hear “equitable” and “equity.”

“We’re not just going to talk about today being fair and just but we’re also going to talk about what’s in it for you guys, what’s in it for the employer, what financial benefits are there and how does this benefit you?” Eure said.

Janie Rollins, regional re-entry specialist with the Re-entry Initiative, recommended programs to mitigate risk and keep more cash on hand as a company. She explained the federal bonding program, work opportunity tax credits, 100-day no fault and on-the-job training.

“One of the things that we struggle with as a regional re-entry team is how is it that we can create opportunities for our customers while continuing to serve our employers well. And with the unemployment rate a record low 4.1 in North Carolina, we know you need workers, and we want to help you,” Rollins said.

“We didn’t invite you here this morning to ask you to concede to a hiring policy you’re not comfortable with,” she said. “We respect your HR policies, but as part of equitable hiring, we’re asking you to consider if I were to send you one of my customers — someone that has a background, but their skills qualify for what you’re needing at the application process — would you level the playing field?”

Lateisha Thrash, prison program manager for the Department of Public Safety, spoke about programs offenders can take part in while serving time to make them more competitive in the workplace. That includes Correctional Enterprises, in which prisoners make goods from road signs to furniture.

“Not only are they learning work skills, but they are learning behavioral skills while they are on the job, so they can be marketable when they are being released,” Thrash said.

Thrash said offenders can enter a work-release program, which has them work on site. She said the prison program can match employers with people who are serving jail time.

“There are different things that we have to make sure we put in place to ensure that the offender is successful and to make sure you’re successful in having the employee that you’re looking for when you’re hiring the offender that we place out there,” Thrash said.

Eure said the number of people with a criminal record is significant and tapping into that population is important for the economy.

“About one in three working-age adults right now has something on their criminal record,” Eure said. “When I talk about criminal record, it’s everything from DUI, misdemeanor offenses, all the way up to the serious murder and sexual offenses. I’m talking about everyone here. This has a huge impact on our economic development. Obviously, if we’re denying a third of our population employment, we’re going to have an issue there.”

The Department of Commerce Re-entry Initiative organized the program in partnership with the Office of the Governor.