'Fair chance hiring' of formerly incarcerated is 'common sense,' says County Atty Conover

Pima County Attorney Laura Conover joined a panel of local business owners, along with the co-founder of Second Chance Tucson, to encourage companies to hire people who were previously held behind bars.

“It’s common sense,” said the county’s top prosecutor at last week’s event. “From a policy perspective if we know
that some 40,000 people will come back home to us out of the Arizona
Department of Corrections then if we care about public safety, we want
them to thrive.”

“It’s a matter of understanding the high rate of poverty that plays the
role of people becoming involved in the criminal justice system,” she
said, adding that “poverty is a huge driver” that can push people into
the criminal justice system, starting with “lower-level property crime”
and “build all the way to violent crime.”

The discussion was hosted at the University of Arizona’s FORGE at
Roy Place in Downtown Tucson. Each Thursday, the
FORGE—short for Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow
Entrepreneurs—hosts the Hustle Hour, an series of events focused on underrepresented groups in collaboration with Local First Arizona.

Along with Conover was Charles Pyle—a retired federal magistrate judge who co-founded Second Chance Tucson—as well as Moniqua Lane, owner of the Downtown Clifton Hotel, and Nathan Dixon, owner of Heroes Carpet Cleaning. Around 25 people attended the event, which was moderated by Joe Watson, a former reporter and ex-spokesman for Conover’s office who now runs the public relations firm Hey Joe Media.

Conover, a former defense attorney, succeeded longtime County Attorney Barbara LaWall
after beating Democrats Jonathan Mosher and Mark Diebolt during 2020’s
primary election, and did not face a Republican in that November ‘s
election. This year, she is running for re-election and faces
Democratic challenger Mike Jette.

“If people go to prison, and we resign them to further poverty because we make them unemployable, we are doing nothing but spinning our wheels,” Conover said. “We’re not attacking root causes and we’re not being serious about crime.”

Roughly 70 million Americans have a criminal record, the result of “nearly five decades of punitive criminal justice policies that fed mass incarceration,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a 2017 report. The ACLU noted that around 2.3 million people are imprisoned each year and more than 640,000 are released annually. 

And “because of the stigma associated with a criminal record,” nearly three-fourths of individuals released from behind bars are still unemployed a year after their release, the ACLU said. 

This costs the U.S. economy nearly $80 billion, the ACLU argued, noting that employment discrimination leads to lost tax revenue and increased jail costs as former prisoners fall back into the criminal justice system. The ACLU noted one study from Philadelphia that found providing jobs to just 100 formerly incarcerated people led to a $2 million reduction in correctional costs. A Florida study found increasing employment for former prisoners by 50 percent would save $86 million annually. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a similar push, arguing that collaborations between Arizona’s prison system and employers under a Second Chance program can speed up job placements after incarceration for prisoners and lower the overall recidivism rate.  

In March, the White House announced Second Chance Month, promoting a strategy released a year earlier to “improve the criminal justice system and strengthen public safety.”  

“Every
year, more than 650,000 people are released from State and Federal
prisons, some leaving with nothing more than a few dollars and a bus
ticket to start their new lives,” the Biden administration said, adding
over 70 million Americans have a criminal history record, making it
harder to “secure a steady job, safe housing, affordable health care, or
a good education — all important things to have when trying to build a
good life.” 

“Studies show that when these needs are met, we do
not just empower formerly incarcerated people — we prevent crime and
make our communities safer,” the Biden administration said. As part of
this, officials laid out a series of proposals and
actions, along with $1 billion in investments in job training, addiction
recovery and reentry services, including Pell Grants for prisoners to
earn college credits.

This also includes an effort to change
how marijuana possession is prosecuted under federal law, Biden
administration officials said.

Conover also noted some people are under-employed, saying this “not a time to deprive ourselves in our economy of skills. We can’t afford such silly business.”

Watson, himself a former inmate, followed Conover’s comments by arguing that there’s a labor shortage. 

“So this is not the time to exclude people from the job market,” he said. “Local businesses small employers depend on on a thriving labor force and they, unfortunately are missing out on an incredibly loyal, talented pool of employees.”

When asked about how to manage employees who have spent time in prison, Dixon said employers need to have open communications with all their employees, including people with conviction histories. 

“My mindset is to be supportive of all my projects, because everybody who works has situations that come up that are difficult,” he said, adding parents have to pick up kids from school, or have other needs. 

“So we make accommodations,” he said, adding people have “lives outside of work.”

Dixon, who was also once incarcerated, said as part of his probation he had to leave work for urine tests, and during a period of “intense probation,” he suddenly had to test twice a week.

“That was very prohibitive for me and the company I worked for,” he said. However, he was “shown a ton of grace” by that employer. “And, so I try to give grace to my guys, I try to be accommodating.”

“I have had great employees with felonies, and I’ve had employees with felonies that are not that great,” he said. “I’ve also had employees with no felonies that are great. And I’ve had employees without felonies that suck.” 

“The point is that people are just people and when you’re gonna hire somebody, you should hire them based on their morals and not based on the past,” Dixon said. 

Pyle co-founded Second Chance Tucson with former Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and said that as a federal judge, he saw very little effort to consider how trauma affected the people moving through his courtroom. 

When he retired as a judge in 2018, very few people thought about “trauma-informed care,” but since then there’s been a sea change and now 70-80 percent of people involved in the criminal justice system have heard of the term, even if “they may not know what it is and what to do with it. But at least we’re making some progress.”

As part of this care, some people are given acupuncture, he said, helping them to “calm down” and giving them 30 minutes of respite. He noted he returned to the courtroom and served in Flagstaff and during that time, 75 percent of his docket included people from one of Arizona’s 12 recognized Native tribes, and many suffered from alcohol abuse. 

A short moment of care can help people, he said, adding that Black and Native American people are over-represented among jail and prison inmates.

“So, it’s about time that these two populations— both of whom have over four centuries of historic trauma—are given some attention or relief for where they are coming from,” Pyle said.

Employers are many states are limited in how they can ask about the criminal histories of potential employees, with the exception
of law enforcement jobs and other sensitive positions.

In recent years, 17 states and Washington D.C. have implemented
“ban-the-box” laws. The city of Tucson and Pima
County both passed resolutions in 2015 barring the practice for government jobs.

However, Moniqua Lane said employees often disclose their criminal histories anyway, although those records often become apparent regardless, when dealing with a lack of bank accounts and how to pay a new worker. Sometimes they don’t have a working phone or Internet access, she said.

Lane said she works with them like any employee, and added that at times she’s allowed them to stay in her hotel. 

“This is just supporting employees at work,” Lane said. “Let’s move you out as soon as we can, but if this is what we need to do, this is what we need to do. It’s not hard for me.”

Dixon agreed, telling the crowd, he helps take his employees—often young men—to the bank and helps them cash their checks. He maintains up to 15 employees at time, but while there may be “some behaviors that need to be addressed” he’s “never had any issues whatsoever.”

Lane agreed with Dixon, adding as a small business “we work closely together, we can suss out there’s issues,” Lane said. “And it has nothing to do with convictions.”

The conversation returned to Watson, who was hired by Conover shortly after she was elected in 2020 to serve as her communications director. Watson, a former journalist at the Phoenix New Times, was convicted of 10 felonies and served 12 years in prison before he was released in 2017.

“So more I want to ask you what was that like hiring somebody with 10 felony convictions,” Watson inquired of Conover. As he asked, the crowd laughed.

Conover said before she became the county attorney, she helped several companies with fair hiring practices. 

“So for me, the whole concept of fair chance hiring was so normalized, it just made all the sense in the world,” she said.

Conover said during her early days in office, she sought a communications director and was “flooded” with applications from “fascinating, incredible people.” The office narrowed it down to three people, including Watson, and she said he was the only candidate “who understands what we’re trying to do.”

“We have to lead by example. I mean, we can’t just talk the talk, we have to we have to show at the very top that if that if this is for public safety, you’re welcome here with us, too,” she said.