Rewriting the Rules

Celia Ouellette
Founder of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ)

Around the world, communities are working together to fight for Fair Chance hiring. In the United Kingdom, RBIJ is partnering with businesses big and small to reform the justice system at a global scale.

Celia’s career began as a human rights lawyer. “I witnessed firsthand how woefully under-resourced defense teams are—especially in the face of the death penalty,” Celia said. So, she founded the Powell Project, an organization dedicated to empowering lawyers with the knowledge and skills to level the playing field in the courtroom.

After years of navigating the glaring flaws that define the justice system, Celia wanted to do more. “I had to find a way to convince the world’s loudest voices to speak up for the voiceless—like my clients on death row,” she said. Just a few years after launching the Powell Project, Celia created the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, an international non-profit group that partners with companies to champion fairness, equality, and effectiveness across systems of punishment and incarceration. “We help corporations use their influence to advance equity for justice-impacted individuals,” said Celia.

Fair Chance hiring doesn’t just benefit employees—it supports businesses, too. Research has proven justice-impacted individuals to be determined, loyal, and hardworking, which lowers turnover and improves retention. “They’ve often faced and overcome huge obstacles in life,” she said. “That’s the kind of resilience you want in your workforce.”

People who have served their time shouldn’t suffer lifelong punishment. Fair Chance hiring is the right thing to do.

But, while individual businesses can change the way they hire, only lawmakers can change the way everyone works. “Many of the barriers that our community faces are maintained by the law,” said Celia. “We’re needlessly preventing millions of people from accessing employment—and, because of the disproportionate impact our justice system has on people of color, these barriers also present a major obstacle to racial equity.”

One of the biggest barriers is the arrest or conviction record itself. “The process of sealing an arrest or conviction record is often extremely expensive and complex,” said Celia. “That creates a big gap—everyone deserves a second chance, but not everyone can afford it.” Luckily, the race for reform has already begun. “Clean Slate legislation, which automatically seals arrest and conviction records after a period of time, has been passed with bipartisan support in states as diverse as Pennsylvania, Utah, and Michigan,” she said.

Even still, Celia’s work is far from finished. “People who have paid their debt to society shouldn’t suffer lifelong punishment. It’s nonsensical, harmful, and contradicts the very principles our justice system is supposed to be based on,” she said. “Fair Chance hiring is the right thing to do.”