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New Laws Improve Job Prospects for Former Prisoners

More than 25 cities and counties have taken steps to remove unfair barriers in their employment practices relative to hiring ex-offenders, according to a resource guide produced by the National Employment Law Project.

Central to this new hiring initiative has been the removal of questions about an individual’s criminal history from initial job applications, and the deferral of criminal background checks until the final hiring stage. Such changes, known as “Ban the Box,” follow studies that indicate it is sound employment policy to hire ex-felons.

Chicago, Boston and San Francisco took the first steps to abandon practices that often barred former offenders from municipal jobs. Boston, for example, has a nondiscrimination law that covers municipal hiring and hiring by companies that do business with the city. Criminal record reviews are not conducted except for police, child care workers, teachers, disabled care workers and other sensitive positions. In such cases the background check comes near the end of the employment process, just before the applicant is hired. If the job offer is withdrawn due to a criminal record the applicant may challenge the decision not to hire.

Other cities that have taken steps to improve their hiring policies to accommodate former prisoners include Austin, TX; Cincinnati, OH; Detroit, MI; Memphis, TN; Seattle, WA; and Washington, DC. According to the New York Times, a law pending in the Massachusetts legislature would give job applicants the right to access criminal background reports used to deny employment, and would exclude from such reports felony offenses more than 10 years old.

Connecticut’s 2010 law prohibits applicants from being disqualified for licensure or employment by the state or any of its agencies based solely on a prior conviction, unless they are otherwise disqualified by state law. The statute requires that employers or licensing agencies consider the nature of the crime and its relationship to the job or occupation, and take into account rehabilitation information and the time that has elapsed since the applicant’s conviction or release from custody.

New Mexico’s law states that convictions “may not operate as an automatic bar to attaining such public employment or license.” The law in Minnesota includes a set of factors to consider when evaluating what is “job related,” and states that applicants may not be disqualified due to a criminal record if they can show competent evidence of rehabilitation and current fitness to perform the duties of the job position.

Other states, including California, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have introduced legislation to expand hiring protections for people with criminal records. Clearly, states have begun to recognize that for ex-prisoners to succeed they must have access to jobs without facing discrimination and other arbitrary barriers based solely on their criminal records.

As stated by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, “Implementing this new policy won’t be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.... We cannot ask private employers to consider hiring former prisoners unless the city practices what it preaches.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressed the topic of barriers to employment for ex-offenders during a July 26, 2011 meeting. In a formal comment submitted to the EEOC after that meeting, PLN noted that “Common sense, our empirical experience and research studies all indicate that ex-offenders have a difficult time finding jobs that provide a living wage following their release from custody, in large part due to their criminal record, and that this difficulty in securing employment directly contributes to reentry problems and thus higher recidivism rates.”

PLN cited recent research that found a strong negative effect of incarceration on upward economic mobility not only for former prisoners but also their families [see: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.26], and noted that “Often a former prisoner’s criminal record has no relation to the type of job he or she is seeking, but because ex-offenders do not constitute a protected class, employers are free to discriminate against them and deny them employment based on their criminal record alone.”

PLN encouraged the EEOC “to give serious consideration to this issue, and to propose and promulgate solutions to this problem which is faced by many, if not most, of the almost 730,000 prisoners who are released from state and federal correctional facilities each year.”

Sources: New York Times, National Employment Law Project

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