In the final installment of The Washtenaw Jail Diary, the former inmate writes: “What I would do after my release, I had no idea. Who would hire a convicted felon in a lousy economy?”
The fact is, not many employers will. And that has an impact on the likelihood that former prisoners will find their way back into the corrections system.
In 2008, approximately 12,500 citizens returned from prison to the communities of Michigan. Within two years, nearly half of them will return to prison.
And research by the Justice Policy Center at The Urban Institute has shown that a principal factor in such high recidivism is a lack of employment opportunities. It is not a lack of adequate qualifications, but rather the social stigma surrounding a felony conviction that prevents many ex-prisoners from landing a job – and the lack of a job that leads them to offend again.
Social service programs can assist ex-offenders in finding housing, accessing mental/physical health treatment, and job-readiness training.
However, it is employers who must ultimately step up and give all qualified individuals a fair opportunity for jobs, if ex-prisoners are to have a fair chance to become stable providers for themselves and their families.
One way to ensure a fair shot is to prohibit discrimination based on criminal history – by banning that box on application forms that requires applicants to check it if they’ve been convicted of a crime.
In most cases, prison sentences are a way to repay a “debt to society.” But the stigma of a criminal conviction often follows a person long after that debt is supposed to have been settled and they have returned to the community.
While steady employment can serve as a stabilizing force in the life of an ex-offender, prohibiting employment discrimination based on criminal history can also produce financial benefit for both the understanding, open-minded employer, and also for the public at large. Many businesses can receive tax credits for hiring individuals with a felony background, as they are considered a “target population” for unemployment reduction by the federal government.
Society benefits from a gainfully employed ex-offender, because the money spent to house an incarcerated citizen can be used for other programs, or to reduce the state’s budget deficit. The Michigan Department of Corrections annual budget is around $2 billion – that reflects an average annual cost per prisoner of more than $32,000.
What Other Communities Are Doing
To discourage employers from unfairly denying job opportunities to qualified people solely because of a past criminal conviction, many cities and counties throughout the U.S. have adopted ordinances or policies that require employers to eliminate the box on the application asking applicants to disclose past criminals records. A compilation by the National Employment Law Project shows that these cities/counties include Chicago, Ill.; San Francisco, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; and the County of Travis (Austin area, Texas).
In the case of Boston, the ordinance was later expanded from government jobs (with exceptions such as law enforcement), to more than 3,000 private vendors that do business with the city.
Here in Michigan, the city of Battle Creek adopted an ordinance in June 2008 that banned the box for its own hiring procedures. Battle Creek’s ordinance also requires a similar hiring practice of vendors who have contracts with the city.
And just this month, in January 2010, the city of Kalamazoo announced that it would no longer ask about prior criminal history on its applications for employment.
Locally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has taken up the cause against apparent automatic exclusion of applicants for jobs at the Wal-Mart in Saline [December 2009 ACLU letter to Wal-Mart].
A Reasonable Hiring Process
Elimination of the criminal conviction box on job applications would not mean that employers would be forced to hire criminals. Rather, it gives people with criminal records the opportunity to explain their situation in an interview setting, while employers would still have the power to decide against hiring someone based on his/her qualifications.
The only difference between most prevailing practice and a more reasonable approach is that criminal background checks would be conducted after the applicant is determined to be otherwise qualified for the position, and after a pending offer of employment has been made.
If a background check is conducted and an applicant is found to have a criminal offense that is likely to interfere with that applicant’s abilities to carry out the responsibilities of the position, the employer would be entitled to rescind the employment offer.
The employer would then be required to inform the applicant of the denial of employment, provide him/her with a copy of the background report, and indicate to the applicant the specific parts of the report that concern the employer. This will give the job seeker the opportunity to present information rebutting the accuracy and/or relevance of the report, such as the changes he/she has made since the criminal conviction.
There are certain jobs that individuals with specific criminal convictions will not be able to hold. For example, some sexual offense convictions may prevent a person from working with vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, or the disabled. Thus, a list of jobs that – for safety reasons – require background checks prior to hiring should be excluded from the policy.
Outside of jobs on this list, however, it would be unacceptable for any business to deny employment “just because” an applicant has a felony record. If there is no reason to believe that the person is likely to re-offend in a manner that would hurt the business, or endanger the public, the prior felony should not factor into an employment decision.
What the City of Ann Arbor Can Do
The city of Ann Arbor’s employment application includes a box in the form of the question [emphasis added]:
Have you ever been convicted of a Felony or a Misdemeanor within the last 7 years? If yes, please state where, when and the nature of the offense(s), and the sentence(s) imposed by the court: NOTE: Conviction of a Felony or a Misdemeanor is not an automatic bar to employment (all circumstances will be considered).
A way to make sure that prior convictions are not a bar to employment – automatic or otherwise – would be for the city of Ann Arbor to follow the lead of our neighbors in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo by eliminating the prior conviction disclosure as a part of its pre-offer job application and to require its vendors to have similar policies in place.
Jason Smith, a master’s in social work student at the University of Michigan, works as an intern with the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative.