By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Seventeen states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws making it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs in the labor market. Now civil rights and community groups that advocate for returning citizens are pushing the White House to do the same.
Even though politicians on both sides of the aisle have warmed up to criminal justice reform and smarter sentencing policies, an estimated 70 million adults in the United States have arrests or conviction records and 9 in 10 employers conduct criminal background checks, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a workers’ rights group.
The Sentencing Project, a group that has advocated for criminal justice reform nearly 30 years, called the United States “the world’s leader incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails – a 500% increase over the past thirty years.”
Blacks, who are nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 35.7 percent of state and federal prison population, compared to Whites who make up 32.8 percent.
“Our justice system is deeply unjust and unfair,” said Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights groups. “We often focus on the incarceration rate and the impact that policing and sentencing have on communities of color, but the injustice of our system is much more widespread.”
That’s because the United States continues to punish people long after they have paid their debts to society, said Henderson.
Most people who are convicted of crimes return to their communities, often facing greater challenges to finding affordable housing, educational opportunities and jobs.
“These barriers make it incredibly difficult for people to rebuild their lives and become the contributing members of society that we want them to be,” said Henderson. “As a result, millions of people are being left behind and left out.”
When those workers are left out, the economy suffers.
“Economists estimated that because people with felony records and formerly incarcerated people have poor job prospects, the nation’s gross domestic product in 2008 was between $57 and $65 billion lower than it would have been had they been gainfully employed,” stated the National Employment Law Project (NELP) report.
“Federal action is what’s right and is what’s needed as a matter of fairness, but without addressing the employment needs of the massive numbers of people with records who are locked out of the labor market, the economy suffers as well,” said Maurice Emsellem, the program director for NELP. “Especially in communities like Baltimore and elsewhere ravaged by criminal justice system.”
Some of the biggest companies in the United States are taking notice and revising their hiring policies to provide greater opportunities to ex-offenders.
KOCH Industries, worth more than $100 billion, recently joined Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot to “ban the box” on job applications.
According to the NELP, “There are a total of 17 states representing nearly every region of the country that have adopted the policies —California (2013, 2010), Colorado (2012), Connecticut (2010), Delaware (2014), Georgia (2015), Hawaii (1998), Illinois (2014, 2013), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (2010), Minnesota (2013, 2009), Nebraska (2014), New Jersey (2014), New Mexico (2010), Ohio (2015), Rhode Island (2013), Vermont (2015), and Virginia (2015).”
Six states have required that private employers remove the question about criminal background from job applications.
“These companies and states are seeing what the federal government hasn’t – that fair chance hiring isn’t just good for communities, it’s good for our economy,” said Henderson. “Certainly those industries would not adopt policies that hurt their bottom line and if they can show the kind of leadership, civic engagement and commitment to fair play in the workforce, then surely the federal government can follow behind.”
Andrea Marta, the campaign manager for Lifelines to Healing, an initiative of the PICO National Network, said that finding a job is the key to helping people return to their communities.
“Jobs help provide redemption and the second chance that many of our folks need to be successful once they come home,” said Marta. “People can walk away from the cycle of violence and poverty through a job that can prevent it.”
Dorsey Nunn, the executive director Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the co-founder All of Us or None, said that it’s a contradiction to say that citizens can return to their communities after serving their citizens while depriving them of the rights and resources needed to get ahead.
Earlier this month, a group from PICO National Network that included ex-offenders met with White House officials and staffers from the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about recommendations for returning citizens facing employment and housing barriers.
Akim Lattermore, a community leader with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative said in a statement, “You can’t resolve policy issues surrounding fair hiring and the formerly incarcerated unless you have those impacted in the room.”
Emsellem said that “Ban the Box” legislation is also in compliance with current civil rights laws that require employers to take into account the age of the record directly related to job or rehabilitation programs that the applicant has completed.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance on hiring practices, encouraging companies to be more mindful of how they use an applicant’s criminal background history in judging whether they’re qualified to do the job because they might unintentionally violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Emsellem said that the beauty of “ban the box” policies is their ability to isolate an applicant’s past criminal record, because those questions come at the end of the hiring process, after the employer has made every other decision. So it’s clear that the employer is judging the potential employee based on his ability or prior conviction.
Emsellem continued, “That creates a real opening and makes it way easier to argue these legal issues and puts the employer, honestly, in a really tough spot.”
Nunn said that if the federal government is going to spend his tax dollars, then he should have access to everything that they spend his money on. That includes jobs with companies that do business with and for the federal government.
“There are boxes all over the place that exclude me from access to a meaningful life,” Nunn said. “’Ban the box’ is more than a question of fair chance hiring. I want the full restoration of my civil and human rights and this is just the first step in the process.”