It’s well known that individuals returning home from prison often face difficulties getting hired. Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors moved to address this issue by voting to study contract preference for employers who hire people who were formerly incarcerated. With its action, the board moves the county toward balancing a historic and systemic inequity – and that is good for the community as well as the businesses within the community.

Hiring formerly incarcerated people is an issue of fairness and safety, too; Individuals who are employed are less likely to be involved in violence. As the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles has noted, “The goal of re-entry is not only to prevent recidivism but to create productive citizens.”

For businesses, it’s also a practical matter: By providing work opportunities to those who have been historically denied, businesses can help create a thriving community environment, one that will generate and attract even more business.

What else do businesses stand to gain by helping their communities to be safer? When communities improve, businesses can boost the retention, productivity and morale of current employees while increasing recruitment of potential employees. They can enhance their standing among the community, and elevate their visibility with the public and political leaders. In addition, they can build relationships in the community that lead to economic development opportunities.

Aside from instituting fair hiring policies, businesses can improve communities by participating in business improvement districts. These are public-private partnerships that invest resources in local services and activities – such as street cleaning, security, and adding parks and other green space – to increase the appeal and use of an area. A 2010 analysis in journal Injury Prevention of 30 business improvement districts in Los Angeles found a 12 percent decline in robberies, an 8 percent decline in violent crime and robust economic benefits. The savings attributed to the decline in robbery alone offset the implementation costs of the districts.

Individual businesses can take other steps to improve their communities as well. They can sponsor and participate in neighborhood beautification efforts; adopt a neighborhood or school by providing volunteer hours, youth job training or in-kind donations; form networks and coalitions with other businesses to promote violence prevention policies in the workplace and community; and meet with elected officials to share how violence affects employees and the ability to conduct business. They also can invest in disenfranchised neighborhoods, support apprenticeships and internships, and work with local government to connect disadvantaged employees to job opportunities.

Put in practice

What might this look like in practice? Look at Boyle Heights’ Homeboy Bakery, which offers former gang members a place to work and learn transferable skills such as customer service and administration. Or the six New York barbershops in Harlem and Brooklyn that provide a reading corner for young boys who come in to get their hair cut. Or the Louisville, Ky., metro government, which gives employees an option to mentor for two hours a week during a paid work shift.

Businesses also can get involved politically by supporting policies that promote a skilled workforce, such as universal prekindergarten, which has well-established benefits, and Ban the Box legislation, which states that potential employers must wait to ask about criminal history until later in the job selection process. California’s state and local governments, and the city of San Francisco, have implemented Ban the Box, but a proposed measure failed to advance in the city of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County already has a policy to award a quarter of its contracts to businesses owned by minorities, disabled veterans and women, and its move to encourage the hiring of recently released inmates is another important step in building a thriving community. Now is the time for the city’s business sector to take actions that move the needle even further by investing in safer communities. Win-wins can be hard to come by, but in this case, the dividends are apparent, abundant and ongoing.

Annie Lyles is a program manager in the L.A. office of Prevention Institute, a national public health nonprofit based in Oakland.

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