Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
July 25, 2014
A prison term should not mean a lifetime of misfortune for a former offender. Yet that is what the criminal justice system produces every day. Former offenders are saddled for life with criminal records that make employment, education and public benefits difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
Job seekers with criminal records have always struggled to find work. It is not just violent offenders and felons who are rejected by employers. A misdemeanor or an old conviction can be enough to cost a person a chance at a job.
As “tough-on-crime” politicians pressed for draconian penalties and ever-widening collateral sanctions, more and more offenders seeking to enter the workforce have been strapped with debilitating limitations. About 70 million people in the U.S. have been convicted of a crime.
A conviction has real and lasting consequences. Forbes Magazine reported that a survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 96 percent of human resource professionals say their companies perform criminal background checks on applicants.
Many criminal justice practitioners point to the lack of employment opportunities for returning prisoners as the most important obstacle to a successful reentry. A failed re-entry means a return to prison, soaring taxpayer funded corrections costs and increased victimization.
Some states, and cities, are trying to do something to eliminate barriers for former offenders seeking employment.
There is a growing movement called “Ban the Box,” a reference to the check box on a job application that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Having the checkbox may prevent many ex-offenders from getting a fair shot at a job.
Some employers immediately set aside an applicant who checks the box. This prevents prospective employees from having an opportunity to sell themselves in an interview and it prevents prospective employers from evaluating an applicant on the merits.
Ban the Box will not prevent employers from checking an applicant’s criminal record. The measure merely postpones the review to later in the assessment process to give former offenders a chance at getting a job.
Four states — Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island — have passed laws that force private employers to remove the question regarding conviction history from job applications, according to National Employment Law Project (NELP).
Eight more states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico — have removed the question from applications for public or state jobs.
In addition, more than 60 cities have banned the box, including Baltimore, Louisville and Indianapolis. According NELP, New York City is considering its own version, called the NYC Fair Chance Act.
Federal law already provides some protection for former offenders seeking employment, although the law does not prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits employers from discriminating when they use criminal history information. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from treating people with similar criminal records differently because of their gender, religion, race or national origin.
Like laws in Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin, federal law prohibits an employer from using an applicant’s criminal record in employment decisions if the conviction does not help the employer accurately decide if the person is likely to be a responsible, reliable or safe employee.
Is America a country where people get second chances or a country where a single mistake follows a person for life?
There is a lot of work to be done to provide former offenders with a meaningful opportunity to earning a living wage. Progress is being made. This week, Washington, D.C., banned the box, Illinois’ governor signed a similar law and, according to National Public Radio, Walmart and Target have eliminated the criminal history question from their employment applications.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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