The last section of this multi-part series covers the impact of a criminal record on nearly 65 million Americans' ability to find work and how a prior background becomes a one-way ticket to poverty and ongoing criminal behavior. (See the first and second installments in this series).
The Sentencing Project provides color on how crime impacts employability, positing that 60% of individuals are unemployed within one year of release from prison, and those who do find jobs take home 40% less in annual pay.
This statistic is rather stunning, especially when taken in conjunction with the results of a study conducted by the Redemption Bridge, a nonprofit organization focused on the retraining and hiring of ex-convicts. Their results, focused on a prison in Tarrant County, Texas, found a high degree of recidivism among inmates where 66% of released convicts were arrested again within three years. However, released prisoners that found employment were 10 times less likely to be rearrested. Employment was the key driver in stopping former convicts from committing another crime and being rearrested.
So, what’s the problem?
The root cause starts at the job application level. Employers often screen for criminal records when hiring – 55% ask about criminal history at some point during the interview process, with only 10% of employers waiting until after making an offer to ask. Many immediately reject applicants with a history as soon as they check a box indicating a prior background. Applicants have little opportunity to explain the degree of their criminality, leaving no ability for the employer to differentiate between a misdemeanor and a violent crime. This creates an uphill battle to find employment after being released from prison and often leads back to a life of poverty and crime.
Such immediate rejection stems from the cost to employers of diving deeper into an applicant’s history. Few companies run background checks once an applicant has indicated a criminal history, and those that do may find the expense - between $8-$18 per applicant - to dive deeper into an applicant’s background onerous. Workers with a record are often lumped into a bucket that marks them as not hirable, perhaps only after one felony such as distribution of marijuana, which incidentally is now a venture capital-backed business model since the bootstrapped bootleggers are in prison.
What is the solution?
First, employers can do more to calibrate criminality and re-assess hiring concerns based on the degree of the crime committed. Excusing minor crimes and misdemeanors like marijuana related arrests – which account for approximately 600 thousand arrests each year – could significantly increase the potential employee pool and decrease re-arrest rates. Advancements in hiring and screening technology make this possible for employers to do on a relatively cheap basis. Adding follow-up questions in screening applications related to criminality or requesting videos that allow an ex-convict to explain his her background along with the application are but a few ways in how new technology can play a role in allowing employers to widen their acceptable hiring net. This is true, in particular, for traditionally “blue collar” jobs where there are massive labor shortages.
Next, federal legislation has a substantial role to play in creating policies that encourage employers to limit hiring practices that auto-reject candidates and instead give ex-convicts a chance to interview and prove their case to hiring managers. Some efforts have already been made to “ban the box.” Ten states so far have passed “ban the box” legislation requiring companies not to ask about criminal history prior to applicants receiving a fair chance at employment. Those responsible for hiring can still conduct background checks after tentative offers have been made, but not prior. A recent report by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice followed activity in Durham, North Carolina, which showed that when Durham passed “ban the box” legislation the percent of people with records hired to government jobs increased from 2.25% to 15%. The case for increased employability when the binary filters are removed is clear – advancement starts with equal access to opportunity.
Finally, local minority-focused nonprofits and community organizations should build collective programs to reeducate and retrain both employers and ex-convicts on the benefit of the reemployment. Minorities and low income communities are severely affected due to disproportionate incarceration rates. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, a black man born in 2001 has a 32% chance of serving time in prison, and a Hispanic man has a 17% chance of doing so. This statistic is only 6% for white men, further fueling a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to break for low income minorities. By communally organizing, minority-centric organizations can deploy their members as a distributed sales force to convince employers of the opportunity and need to hire folks with a criminal record. Additional retraining on key job opportunities and skills within communities can help lower the recidivism rate of a disproportionately affected population as well as build a path out of poverty and criminality.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that when people with records can’t find work, the national GDP is impacted by $78 to $87 billion a year. Be it the opportunity for employers or government legislators, the case for increasing employability of workers with a criminal history, especially for misdemeanors and minor crimes, is clear. The holy grail for widespread crime and poverty reduction has been hidden in the American jail.