The Story Behind the Story-Why States and Cities are Concerned about Second Chances for Ex-Offenders

There is an increasing awareness in the United States that ex-offenders are having difficulty obtaining jobs due to their criminal records.  Although employers have a duty to exercise due diligence to promote a safe workplace, civil rights laws also do not permit employers to automatically disqualify someone with a criminal record before considering if there is a business justification based upon the nature and gravity of the crime, the nature of the job and how long ago the job occurred.  As noted above, New York has added additional factors that can be considered.

As reported in past ESR newsletters, there have been efforts made to help ex-offenders obtain jobs. In its January, 2007 newsletter, ESR reported that a number of municipalities were not asking about past criminal records on the initial application. The short-hand name is “ban the box,” referring to the box on an application asking about past criminal conduct. The logic behind theses law is to ensure that applicants are considered for jobs based upon their qualifications and experience before the employer searches for criminal records. In addition, such protection also encourages ex-offenders to apply in the first place. Cities are concerned about the burden placed on them by large numbers of un-employed ex-offenders.  See:  http://www.esrcheck.com/newsletter/archives/January_2007.php#T1

In March, 2008, the ESR newsletter discussed a meeting of the Conference of Mayors in New York City on the same topic. According to a press release from the Conference;

“With 1 in 31 American adults in prison, jail, on parole or probation, the US prison system is in crisis. Hundreds of prisons nationwide are overcrowded to the breaking point, and high recidivism rates are largely to blame: 39 percent of prisoners have served three or more sentences. This cycling in and out of prisons is taking a devastating economic toll on already-vulnerable urban communities. At this critical moment, policymakers and experts are determined to come together and develop concrete solutions to making sure that people who leave prison do not reoffend and go back.”

See:  http://www.esrcheck.com/newsletter/archives/March_2008.php#T1

In the September, 2006, edition, ESR reported on lawsuits for discrimination based upon ex-offenders denied employment.   http://www.esrcheck.com/newsletter/archives/September_2006.php#T1

In passing the new laws in New York, the New York legislature gave as a justification that up to 60% of ex-offenders are unemployed one year after release and there is a strong correlation between unemployment and recidivism.  The legislature cites statistics that, in New York State, eighty-three (83%) of individuals who are in violation of the terms of their probation are unemployed.  See (legislative justification contained in New York A07847)

The bottom-line: As a society, we do not want to risk the lives and property of people by bad hiring decisions. Employers who fail to exercise due diligence can be sued, and innocent consumers, co-workers and members of the public can be the victims of workplace violence, theft or other wrongdoing.     

On the other hand, our society does not want to create a permanent class of unemployable ex-offenders who can never re-enter society and be productive. Automatic rejection of any applicant with a criminal record makes it very difficult for an ex-offender to get back into the workforce. Given that, on the average, it costs over $30,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner in the United States, and that without a job it is very difficult for an ex-offender to become a law abiding tax paying citizen, it is critical that society gives everyone an opportunity to work. Unless ex-offenders can get a second chance, our society will spend more time and resources building prisons instead of schools, hospitals and roads.

The key is to understand that there is a job for everyone, although not everyone is qualified for every job. Employers should not overreact or react automatically because an otherwise qualified applicant has had difficulty in the past unless there is a business justification to reject the applicant. However, this pre-supposes that employers are doing proper screening and practice due diligence in their hiring.

It is also important for our society to help with the re-entry of ex-offenders by supporting programs and opportunities. In fact, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (www.napbs.com) has donated money to such programs.

Background screening firms are often caught in the middle of this debate.  Although a screening firm does not make the hiring decision, screening firms are retained by employers to research potential criminal records.  A background screening firm should clearly advise employers that there are limitations on the use of criminal records.