Ranks of former prisoners can be a good workforce source.

Local restaurant Hot Chicken Takeover has a reputation as a choice employer for formerly incarcerated individuals, and founder Joe DeLoss does whatever he can to foster that reputation. He knows it's good for the employee and the community-but it's also an integrated part of his business model. DeLoss strategically chooses to hire restored citizens, seeing their motivation, productivity and retention as part of Hot Chicken Takeover's recipe for success.

Efforts by employers like DeLoss, Franklin County and other local organizations help employers push aside stigmas to find strong entry-level employees among the thousands of central Ohioans released from jail or prison each year. Tapping into this workforce can benefit employers while supporting successful re-entry to the community for the formerly incarcerated and building a stronger central Ohio.

Restored citizens make up more than 70 percent of Hot Chicken Takeover's workforce. DeLoss says he's working to validate the success of this workforce in economic terms, tracking his retention at 50 percent, which is much higher than the norm in food service.

"Not all criminals go to prison," DeLoss says. "There's a notion that hiring someone with that label is more of a risk than someone who hasn't earned those papers yet." He and his team don't buy into the perspective that the restored citizen workforce is somehow "less than."

"They're highly motivated and have humility. They're willing to take ownership-past, present and future," DeLoss says.

He urges other employers-especially those feeling an economic pinch caused by high turnover-to consider hiring restored citizens.

"We don't have a charitable workforce model. We have an effective HR tool," he explains.

The 40-member Franklin County Reentry Coalition, established in 2009 works to transition formerly incarcerated individuals back into the community. As policy director to Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown, Michael Daniels is active with the coalition and appreciates the support of employers like DeLoss. He adds that employers receive tax benefits for hiring restored residents and often gain "an extended part of the company's HR department" in the form of probation and parole officers who administer drug tests and follow up if the employee doesn't show up to work.

Perception remains a hurdle.

"There's a sense that people wearing blue shirts and numbers are different than us. I fundamentally don't believe this," says Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Gov. John Kasich appointed Mohr as director in 2011, and the department shifted its mission from simply caring for inmates while incarcerated to actively reducing the number of people who return to prison for committing another crime after release.

Ohio's 27.5 percent recidivism rate is nearly half of the 49 percent national average and is declining at a higher rate. Franklin County is even lower at 24 percent. This speaks to the progress being made by groups like the coalition, though growth in the hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals is "happening quietly" says coalition Coordinator Kysten Palmore. She underscores the importance of hiring restored residents to the bigger picture of breaking the cycle of poverty and improving central Ohio's overall public safety and economic security.

"If you are looking at the ability for communities to be economically viable, it requires individuals to be employed. Then you pay taxes and buy houses and change the face of the community," Palmore explains. She adds that a lack of jobs for those re-entering the community creates a permanent underclass. "And desperate people are dangerous people."

The coalition challenges employers to change their thinking and employment practices as an investment in not only restored residents but the larger community.

"Within most organizations, there are jobs that can be done by competent workers where your past has no relevance," says Daniels.

He encourages all employers to "ban the box" by eliminating the checkbox on job applications asking about a criminal record to give all applicants a level chance with no pre-judgment.

"A previous bad decision is not necessarily a reflection of current-day character," Daniels notes, rattling off two examples of current Franklin County employees with past criminal activity who wanted to choose a new path and were helped along that journey with viable employment.

Employers, especially those struggling to fill entry-level positions, can also reconsider current job qualifications.

Daniels asks, "Is it really a requirement that folks who work for you need a GED, for example, as a landscaper or a dishwasher or a line cook?"

There are 1,300 individuals released annually in Franklin County with felony convictions, but the number of people who are in jail at least once jumps to 30,000 plus. Daniels emphasizes the number of "unemployable" central Ohio residents this represents over multiple years if employers are unwilling to hire from this population.

Not all formerly incarcerated individuals are workforce ready, but state prison chief Mohr sees great opportunity in training incarcerated Ohioans to prepare them to contribute to the workforce immediately upon release.

In 12 reintegration centers throughout the state, including centers in Marysville and Marion, inmates work 10-12 hours a day both inside and outside the fences to minimize the transition. Ohio inmates can earn commercial driver's licenses and vocational certifications while incarcerated.

Mohr is looking to build relationships between employers and incarcerated citizens, and the newly created Ohio Enterprise Development Advisory Board screens outside employers interested in having such a relationship.

The Columbus Urban League also provides resources to restored citizens. Urban League Program Coordinator Joey Green says initiatives range from a 10-week Choose to Change program that helps newly released men put a blueprint together, find resources and set goals, to a Transitions program for both men and women who have been back in society longer but are struggling to find jobs. With the state's prisons reaching capacity, "we have to come up with something to help people who are trying to transition," Green says.

Providing training and opening the employment pipeline for formerly incarcerated central Ohioans can spell benefits for the overall community, contends Palmore.

"When you restore a person's value and dignity, you'll get that value back," she says.

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.