Old Criminal Records Are Life Sentences in Job Market

Seth Wessler

Almost two years ago, Vincent, a slim 46-year-old black man dressed in a plaid shirt, worked as a maintenance technician in Detroit. He had worked for the company for almost three months, but five days before his position converted to full time with benefits, his employer ran a criminal background check and told Vincent to pack it up.

A lot of times, they cut you out of the job before they hire you in [full time],” Vincent said sitting at a diner near the temporary worker center where he waits for work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

Vincent has held a few temporary jobs since but hasn’t found even a day of work recently. A breaking and entering conviction from 25 years ago follows him everywhere. It’s real hurtful to know that your chances are so broke down to zero,” he said.

I met Vincent earlier this year while traveling the country to explore hidden impacts of the recession. Dozens of people recounted how criminal background checks punish them indefinitely by imposing lifelong barriers to successful employment and housing. The policies make re-entry an uphill battle, negating the criminal justice system’s putative aim of rehabilitating prisoners. They also block our collective need to get people working in this economic crisis. 

The White House has appropriately put jobs at the center of the stimulus plan, with President Obama preparing for a jobs summit this week. But for people with criminal records, the prospects of inclusion in the national recovery are dismal. It’s not enough to create a job when a quick criminal background check results in the exclusion of hundreds of thousands from the workforce. Those with prior convictions will be excluded from the game before the starting whistle blows.

Communities of color experience higher rates of joblessness. This is due in part to the damning mix of the stigma attached to having a criminal record, the assumption on the part of employers that black men have committed crimes, the ensuing ban on public employment for people with felony convictions and the practice of employers conducting background checks.

According to Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager, joblessness among former prisoners after their first year out is around 75 percent – three times the level among the same population before incarceration. This trend toward never-ending punishment, even after people have served their time, infects communities of color with particular venom.

These statistics impact all of us, because racial inequity eventually hurts us all. As NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently stated, Black people in the U.S. are the canaries in the coal mine… What we get tends to hit everybody later.”

Consider the subprime mortgage crisis. It required a population - communities of color - whose economic and political vulnerability made them easy targets for exploitative loan products, which eventually spread to other homeowners, taking down the entire mortgage industry.

And racial inequity is growing. In October, black and Latino unemployment was 15.7 and 13.1 percent respectively, compared to 9.5 percent for whites. Black and Latino poverty is close to three times that of whites. Joblessness for young black men aged 16-24 is now 34.5 percent, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population. To get this economy moving again, we need people working, spending and paying taxes.

Fixing inequity is a prerequisite for constructing a healthy and just economy. As historians tell us, massive inequity preceded and contributed to the Great Depression. Removing concrete barriers to employment is one step in that direction.

As the stimulus plan is implemented, the records of people with old convictions must be expunged, as the state of Illinois did for non-violent offenses in 2005. The right of employers to conduct criminal background checks should be restricted, especially in situations like Vincent’s, whose employer routinely used these checks to maintain a temporary and insecure workforce.

Back at the diner in Detroit, Vincent said, I look at myself every day that I get up and I actually wonder if it’s going to be the day that things totally fall apart.” It’s up to advocates and policymakers to prevent that, starting with changing the rules that now sentence people to a lifetime of punishment.

This article originally appeared at The​Grio​.com. For more on how Americans with criminal records face severe economic challenges, read Michelle Chen’s recent Working ITT post, After Release, Former Prisoners Robbed of Opportunity.”

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