Life after parole: JPMorgan fights employment barriers for ex-convicts

What Harley Blakeman discovered after his release from prison wasn't that his sentence didn't end there.

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His felony drug conviction, when he was a teenager, was enough to keep most employers from considering his application, even after he earned a bachelor's degree in business.

It's a dilemma facing many of the 5 million people in the U.S. who served time, a segment of the population for whom the unemployment rate is 27 percent, even in the country's strongest labor market in nearly 50 years.

Closing the gap, in part by deleting a standard question about criminal backgrounds on job applications, is the first initiative undertaken by the new policy center at JPMorgan Chase, which as the largest U.S. lender has become something of a bellwether for financial markets and the U.S. economy.

The center -- headed by Heather Higginbottom, a former deputy secretary of state who also worked with the White House Office of Management and Budget -- will focus on issues such as job skills and education, small business growth, economic development and affordable housing, JPMorgan said Monday.

Initial goals are restoring access to Pell grants -- a type of federal financial aid for college students that doesn't have to be repaid -- and reforming justice system penalties including the revocation of driver's licenses in addition to making it easier for people with criminal records to obtain jobs.

The goal is achieving "real policy change," Higginbottom told FOX Business. The initiative comes as U.S. companies take a larger role in social policy, from more aggressively addressing sexual misconduct in the workplace amid the #MeToo movement to tightening gun policies.

Executives and policy analysts alike have attributed the shift in part to congressional gridlock, with Democrats and Republicans unwilling to compromise on hot-button issues that could spur primary challenges.

Because of its size and the breadth of its experience, JPMorgan has a unique ability to drive change through the policy center, which will be based in Washington, D.C., Higginbottom said.

"Just having a criminal arrest or conviction history is a significant barrier to employment," she said. "The unemployment rate of those formerly incarcerated is nearly five times the national unemployment rate. It's really important that we think about how to address that issue."

JPMorgan has already eliminated the question about criminal histories from its own application forms and will support state and federal efforts to requiring background checks only after job candidates have received a conditional employment offer.

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Requiring it sooner, the firm said, often prevents callbacks and interviews for qualified candidates, even if their previous offense has no bearing on the position they're seeking.

"We still want to hire the best people for the job," Higginbottom explained.

While "we still maintain rigorous standards for hiring," the firm doesn't believe a criminal background should be an automatic disqualification to employment with the bank or elsewhere, she said.

When someone cannot get their foot in the door to compete for a job, it is bad for business and bad for communities that need access to economic opportunity.

- JPMorgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon

Changing its own policy has already affected the number of people with criminal backgrounds JPMorgan has hired, she added.

"When someone cannot get their foot in the door to compete for a job, it is bad for business and bad for communities that need access to economic opportunity," said CEO Jamie Dimon, who also chairs the Business Roundtable, an organization comprising executives from the 200 largest U.S. companies.

"Giving more people a second chance allows business to step up and do their part to reduce recidivism, hire talented workers and strengthen the economy."

Blakeman, who went on to start his own company, HonestJobs.co, after working in a corporate role, makes a similar argument

His company connects employers with qualified ex-convicts looking for work. People with records can often find simply obtaining shelter, food and employment nearly impossible, he said, describing his own experience in a TEDx Talk, a local version of the popular online presentations, at Ohio State University earlier this year.

"Before, during and after college, jobs I was qualified for and interviewed for, once I was honest about my past, they would not hire me," he said. "This was not just my problem. This is America's problem."