Skip to Content

Breaking Down Barriers to Employment: North Carolina Criminal Justice Impacts on Workforce

| Education & Workforce Development

According to recent US Chamber data, North Carolina continues to face a worsening worker shortage with only 55 workers for every 100 open jobs.

Employers know that broadening current talent pools is more important than ever in this tight labor market, but that involves breaking down existing barriers to unemployment.

The NC Chamber held its quarterly Workforce Readiness Committee meeting last week on the topic of the criminal justice system and the impact of the current criminal offenses structure on North Carolina’s business community.

Committee members heard from Jessie Smith of UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab and Maggie O’Donnell with Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.

Both speakers are nationally recognized subject matter experts on this topic and provided expertise and data surrounding North Carolina’s criminal justice system, national trends, and opportunities to address barriers to employment.

In addition to being a continued policy and legislative agenda focus of the NC Chamber, criminal justice initiatives and workforce development are an area of importance for the NC Chamber Foundation.

Meredith Archie, president of the NC Chamber Foundation, kicked off the conversation by further explaining the Foundation’s role, saying, “One of our focuses is removing barriers to entering the workforce, which includes looking critically at the impacts of the criminal justice system on workforce development and economic mobility here in North Carolina.”

When the punishment does not fit the crime

According to 2021 statewide data, 89% of criminal charges in North Carolina are misdemeanors with 91% of those being non-violent offenses. Additionally, 70% of misdemeanor charges result in a dismissal. Yet even when charges are dismissed or acquitted, individuals can still end up with a criminal record.

Taking that one step further, the overwhelmingly most common offenses in our state include what most people would not deem worthy of a criminal record—such as speeding, expired registration tags, driving with a revoked license (non-impaired driving), and driving without a driver’s license.

Implications for a person’s future

A criminal record can have life altering consequences for employment, housing, educational opportunities, and social benefits. “Yet, these are things people need to be productive members of society,” said Smith.

One in six criminal cases in North Carolina results in a missed court appearance, which equates to an automatic suspended license. And to put another number behind that, more than 800,000 drivers have lost their licenses in the past year for failure to appear in court.

Smith explained that this is not as simple as someone not choosing to show up. She gave an example of a young construction worker who was charged with reckless speeding. He took off work twice and his case was not heard those days. On what would be his third time trying to go to court, his boss did not give him the time off and he had to make a difficult decision not to attend court. This resulted in suspension of his license, arrest, and not having money to post bail, which resulted in him losing his job—and the ripple effect continued.

According to O’Donnell, 95% of North Carolinians rely on a car to get to and from work. This relatable example shows how one wrong decision can present lofty and even lifelong consequences, especially for those who do not have the funds to miss work.

“That has broad economic and societal impacts,” she said. “It also disproportionately impacts people in rural areas.”

Smith explained that there are possible options in the future for virtual court hearings which will help alleviate at least part of the issue.

Policy considerations

O’Donnell, whose organization helps businesses identify criminal justice reform policies and governmental policy that fit their specific needs, said that businesses have a strong impact on criminal justice.

She said that some of the buckets where organizations and state can look to make policy changes are with:

  1. Right-sizing the system: Make minor offenses, such as expired tags, civil infractions instead of criminal charges.
  2. Expunging license revocations unrelated to roadway safety: These have major impacts on someone’s ability to work and where employers can pool their talent.
  3. Building the narrative: Help to create understanding regarding criminal justice reforms and the impacts of the current system on our state’s workforce and its employer community.

O’Donnell closed the conversation stating, “There’s an obvious business case here, but there’s also an important human case for second chance hiring.”

Next Steps & Resources

Criminal justice initiatives and workforce development are a continued area of importance for the NC Chamber’s legislative agenda, as well as an initiative of the NC Chamber Foundation as part of its overall goal of reducing employment barriers. We will continue to serve in our role as a convener for these important conversations and utilize our membership’s thought leadership to determine the best ways to promote tangible and thoughtful change that better opens up this critical talent pool for the North Carlina business community.