Friday, August 6, 2021


States must think outside the box on employment of former felons…

April 20, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) It was her tenth time looking for a job, and as she sat in front of me, a researcher with a tape recorder and tablet, she nervously twirled her hair and shifted in her seat. She described her skills as a computer technician and marketed herself as a hard worker and potentially dedicated employee, but wondered aloud whether she should just give up. She talked about “a problem” she had five years prior that landed her behind bars.

I carefully probed about her work experience since she’s been out and asked her to continue. She explained that she looks for work everyday, but more and more, she’s noticing “that question.” Sometimes, it asks whether she has ever been arrested. Sometimes, it asks whether she’s ever been convicted of a felony. Sometimes it asks whether she has had a misdemeanor or felony in the last seven years. After each arbitrary phrasing of the question, she stops.

Why should I finish?” she asked. “I know they’re just going to take my application and throw it in the garbage.”

Finding a job is hard these days — even harder if you are one of the 600,000 people leaving U.S. prisons each year. Indeed, the study I was leading at the time did find that a criminal record significantly reduces the likelihood of a job applicant receiving a favorable response, and the issue of presumed criminality seemed to have particularly negative effects on the employment outcomes of African-American women whether or not they had a criminal record. In short, a criminal record can serve as kryptonite to an otherwise desirable applicant – a reality that we have to change.

Currently, there are only two states, Minnesota and New Mexico, which have laws that “ban the box,” or prohibit an employer from considering an applicant’s criminal conviction history unless it is directly related to the job an applicant is seeking. This Wednesday, the California Assembly’s Labor and Employment committee will convene a hearing and vote on AB 2727, to determine whether the state will become the third to stop the continued and unwarranted discrimination against people with a criminal record who want to get a job and reinvent their lives.

A criminal record performs as a tool for structural exclusion from access to some of our most basic necessities — a job, housing, higher education, childcare assistance, etc. — and more employers than ever before are considering applicants’ criminal conviction histories when making hiring decisions. In fact, the increasing use of background checks and credit checks represent a problematic tendency of employers to rely on unreliable screening tools to determine who gets a job. Contrary to public opinion, there is no evidence to support that people with weak credit are more likely to have a problematic job performance; and prior involvement in the criminal justice system does not predict future involvement in the justice system; so these tools serve as nothing more than an excuse to unnecessarily discriminate against applicants.

Previous studies led by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager and other scholars have shown that even though formerly incarcerated people are “marked” by their conviction history, when they are provided with a chance to interview, they are more likely to be hired. However, despite this evidence, these tools continue to disqualify people–disproportionately people of color–before they ever get to an interview, preventing them from competing for jobs they are otherwise qualified to work.

Now is not the time to deny anyone employment, and our focus should be on dismantling these structural barriers that prevent people from participating in the labor force. When more people work, more people pay taxes and more people are able to function in life without government assistance. Additionally, when formerly incarcerated people are employed, they are a third less likely to recidivate, which makes employment a significant tool to enhance public safety.

We must defend the extension of equal opportunity to everyone in this nation–including those who have made mistakes in their past. As we look forward to remedies that can expedite the healing of our communities and our economy, we need to ensure that equal opportunity to employment doesn’t come with an asterisk…or a box.

Written By Monique W. Morris


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