Stop denying jobs to people with criminal records

Employers must stop discriminating against people with criminal records. According to the National Employment Law Project, 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record, which is one out of every four American adults. In 36 states, these Americans are required to check a box on written job applications to indicate that they have criminal records. These applicants’ chances of getting a job callback or offer are cut in half, according to the NELP’s report “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment.” 70 million Americans in 36 states are discriminated against because of a mistake they already paid for.

The “Ban the Box” movement seeks to eradicate the use of this criminal record checkbox to screen applicants before receiving an interview. 14 states have “Banned the Box” for state institutions. Six of those—Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Jersey—have also “Banned the Box” for private institutions, according to the Washington Post.  Each state, however, has different legislation about when employers can inquire about applicants’ criminal records. Some legislate that employers can check anytime after the first written application, others during the interview. Hawaii does not allow employers to check criminal records until after they extend a conditional  offer of employment.

Applicants are often denied jobs for crimes they committed in the distant past or that are unrelated to the job they are applying for. Chicago resident Darrell Langdon struggled with addiction in his youth and was charged with cocaine possession.

Langdon maintained a clean record for over two decades. But when Langdon applied for a job as a boiler room engineer in the Chicago Public Schools, he was denied because of his drug conviction from over 25 years ago. His drug conviction said nothing about the person he was or the experience he had. He was unjustly denied a job opportunity. The Chicago Tribune reported the event. Once Langdon’s case gained enough attention, Chicago Public Schools decided to offer Langdon the job it had formerly denied him. But not everyone is so lucky.

The NELP argues in “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment” that “major companies as well as smaller employers routinely deny people with criminal records any opportunity to establish their job qualifications.” Some notable companies are Bank of America, Aramark, Lowe’s, Domino’s Pizza, RadioShack and Omni Hotels. The NELP also notes that “imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, but it can also be illegal under civil rights laws.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, national origin and other protected categories. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated, “an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII” in its “Policy Statement on the Issue of Conviction Records” from 1987. Background checks that solely rely on a criminal record are, therefore, in direct violation of Title VII.

We cannot continue to scrutinize one out of every four American adults. Every single person who has served time for a crime has already faced the repercussions of their actions. We label them criminals, convicts and offenders. But they are human. They are capable of reflecting on past mistakes and changing. If they are willing to work, they should be considered for jobs based on their merits. It is better for them. It is better for society. It is better for us. We need to reintegrate our struggling citizens back into society, not cast them out permanently. We need every state to “Ban the Box,” in both public and private institutions.

Unemployment directly increases the likelihood of future crime. The National Institute of Justice noted in 2013 that “[b]eing employed substantially reduced the risk of all recidivism outcomes.” If employment helps formerly incarcerated persons stay out of prison, then we should help formerly incarcerated persons find jobs, not impede their progress.

Maintaining a cycle of unemployment and incarceration hurts the economy. The average prisoner costs $31,286 annually in taxpayer dollars, according to a study in 2012 from the Vera Institute of Justice. The United States has the highest prison population and second highest incarceration rate in the world. We are spending a lot of money to provide for people who could instead be providing for themselves, their families and their communities.

Anyone who committed a crime made a mistake, but not every mistake should determine the life of whoever made it. People with criminal records have already faced the criminal justice system and have already served their punishment.

Even crimes related to the job position should not disqualify candidates from being given an interview. For example, if someone robbed a convenience store and served a full sentence, he should be still able to apply to work as a cashier. Double penalizing in the job market is inhumane and illegal under Title VII. We are all human, and we all make mistakes.

College students, for instance, make mistakes at alarming rates. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found in 2007 that “49% (3.8 million) of full time college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs.” But we do not hesitate to hire clean record college graduates. Why? Because they worked harder or are more qualified?

Convicted applicants are half as likely to even be given a job interview to demonstrate their qualifications, according to NELP. Both a clean-record college graduate and person with a substance conviction have likely abused substances. The only difference is that we forgive the college student and stigmatize the “criminal.”

We cannot uphold this double standard. We cannot discriminate against those of us unfortunate enough to make a mistake and get caught, while others walk away just as guilty. We must give everyone a second chance, as we give ourselves second chances. We all make mistakes and learn from them. We can reflect, adapt and continue to contribute. But right now we are telling 70 million Americans in 36 states that they “need not apply.”