RACHEL WHITBECK, EQUAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR
The revolving door of the American prison system has been well-documented in recent decades: Two thirds of released prisoners will later return to incarceration. This is largely due to the fact that many employers believe that if an ex-convict breaks the law while on the job, the employer might be faced with a lawsuit, and they therefore screen out any applications that checked “yes” on the question of whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime. This makes it difficult for people with criminal backgrounds to find employment, which contributes to the high prevalence of those who eventually find their way back in prison.
Today, 25 percent of adults—65 million nationwide—have criminal records. Those that must indicate their conviction record on a job application cannot indicate the nature of the crime—such as whether the conviction was a felony or a misdemeanor—and many of these ex-convicts have never served time in jail or prison. In fact, in 2011, 48 percent of inmates in American prisons were being held for drug offenses. While many employers screen out applicants with criminal records, Pamela Paulk of Johns Hopkins Health System claims that, in her experience, employees with criminal backgrounds tend to be the most motivated employees with a higher rate of retention than the average worker.
As of mid-2013 10 states and 50 localities have passed “Ban the Box” laws, which prohibit employers from including a checkbox inquiring whether the applicant has a criminal record in an initial screening process. In December 2010, the Council of the District of Columbia passed the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act of 2010, which amended the District of Columbia Government Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978. The 2010 act decrees that the District government is prohibited from inquiring about criminal history on the application form for jobs that are “not covered” (a position for which a background check is not required by law); public employers may only ask an applicant about their criminal history only after the screening process, at which time the applicant is permitted to explain any criminal history. The District does not currently require private employers to undergo the same non-discrimination practices.
On November 5, 2013, NPR News’ Tell Me More program interviewed Madeline Neighly of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). As she states, the issue of inquiring about criminal backgrounds is partly a racial issue: A 2003 Princeton University study found that a white male without a criminal record had, on average, a 34 percent chance of receiving a call after applying for a position, whereas a white male with a criminal record had a 17 percent chance. For a black man, the percentages are drastically altered: He has a 14 percent chance at a callback without a criminal record, and only a five percent chance with one. As it is, 37.8 percent of American inmates were African American in 2011. In the District, if current trends continue, three out of four young African American men are likely to be incarcerated at some time. Neighly emphasizes that convicts who have served their sentences “really need a chance to reintegrate into their community.”
Truth is, many ex-convicts are the products of underprivileged neighborhoods and troubled families. If DC passes a more comprehensive law that 'bans the box' in private sector hiring practices, thousands of residents would find it easier to gain employment to support their own futures and stop the revolving door of American prisons.
The Ban the Box Coalition is currently pushing to pass the Human Rights for Ex-Offenders Act, which aims to end discrimination against people with criminal records by private employers and land lords (except where the crime directly relates to the job or housing offered).
Click here to sign the petition to support this act, and join the GW Roosevelt Institute and the DC community in taking further action to help pass this vital piece of legislation in the District.
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