Former offenders are saddled for life with criminal records that make employment, education and public benefits difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. A prison term should not mean a lifetime of misfortune for a former offender. Yet, that is what the criminal justice system produces every day.
Job seekers with criminal records have always struggled to find work. It is not just violent offenders and felons who are rejected by employers. A misdemeanor or an old conviction can be enough to cost a person a chance at a job. About 70 million people in the U.S. have been convicted of a crime.
A conviction has real and lasting consequences. Forbes Magazine reported that a survey by the Society for Human Resources Management, found that 96 percent of human resource professionals say their companies perform criminal background checks on applicants.
Many criminal justice practitioners point to the lack of employment opportunities for returning prisoners as the most important obstacle to a successful reentry. A failed reentry means a return to prison; soaring taxpayer funded corrections costs; and increased victimization.
Some states, and cities, are trying to do something to eliminate barriers for former offenders seeking employment.
There is a growing movement called Ban the Box, a reference to the check box on a job application that asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Having the check box may prevent many ex-offenders from getting a fair shot at a job.
Some employers immediately set aside an applicant who checks the box. This prevents perspective employees from having an opportunity to sell themselves in an interview and it prevents perspective employers from evaluating an applicant on the merits.
Ban the Box will not prevent employers from checking an applicant's criminal record. The measure merely postpones the review to later in the assessment process to give former offenders a chance at getting a job.
Four states -- Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island -- have passed laws that force private employers to remove the question regarding conviction history from job applications, according to National Employment Law Project (NELP).
Eight more states -- California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico -- have removed the question from applications for public or state jobs.
In addition, more than 60 cities have banned the box, including Baltimore, Louisville and Indianapolis. According NELP, New York City is considering its own version, called the NYC Fair Chance Act.
Is America a country where people get second chances or a country where a single mistake follows a person for life?
There is a lot of work to be done to provide former offenders with a meaningful opportunity to earning a living wage. Progress is being made. This week, Washington D.C. banned the box, Illinois’ governor signed a similar law and, according to National Public Radio, Wal-Mart and Target have eliminated the criminal history question from their employment applications.
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Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.