By Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, Research Professor, Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine and author of Stereotypes in Black and White: How everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men
Of the many injustices inherent in our system, one of the most frustrating is what happens when a prisoner tries to re-enter society and the workforce. Not only have the 650,000 released each year lost a significant number of their productive years to incarceration, but even after they have paid their debt to society discrimination forces them to pay and pay again. Myths abound regarding access to benefits, public housing, employer incentives, parental rights, Medicaid suspensions or terminations, and many other rights, including the right to be fairly considered and hired to do an honest job. These myths serve to marginalize and stigmatize.
In their search for honest employment, individuals face a myriad of obstacles. But understanding what they are—and what they are not—helps provide direction for solving the problem.
The issue is often incorrect information about the rights of former prisoners. For example, an employer might believe that people with criminal records are automatically barred from employment. In fact, an arrest or conviction will not automatically bar individuals from employment. In reality, states and localities have what some might find to be astonishing discretion in the way they apply policies, and can even opt out completely. In addition, employers may not be aware of various incentives for helping the formerly incarcerated. Many do not know that if they hire ex-felons they can save money on their federal income taxes in the form of a tax credit inventive, through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program.
One in four American adults have an arrest or conviction that pops up during a routine criminal background check. And according to the Society for Human Resources Management, over 80 percent of U.S. employers perform such checks. As with so much relating to our criminal justice system, such a practice can and does overwhelmingly discriminate against African Americans. A case in point is the recent Pepsi Beverages policy of refusing to hire even those who had been merely arrested and were pending prosecution—even if they had never been convicted. Pepsi also refused to hire those convicted of even minor offenses. Such misuse of arrest and conviction records to deny employment can be found illegal when it is not relevant for the job. And indeed, Pepsi has agreed to pay millions in damages, provide job offers and training, and change its background check policy. BMW and Dollar General are also under scrutiny.
We must and can do better in preventing and mitigating this form of collateral damage. When employers say they hire on a case-by-case basis it generally means they don’t hire anyone who has been convicted of a crime, no matter how minor or irrelevant to the job.
As a step in the right direction, my team and I were part of a campaign in Georgia to have expungement legislation enacted. Expungement, or the process of sealing arrest and conviction records, recognizes that background checks are harmful.
However large a difference this can make in people’s lives, it is not enough. We need to “ban the box” from employment applications. Industry leaders need to be more active. There is ample opportunity for leadership in HR for CEOs to turn the corner on this issue that disproportionately affects African Americans. Employers and workforce development specialists can use the incentives and protections in place for hiring formerly convicted individuals. Prison, jail, probation, community corrections, and parole officers can ensure that formerly convicted individuals can access the appropriate federal benefits to help them become stabilized and established after release.
And remember this: African American men without criminal records are 3 percent less likely to be considered for employment than white men with criminal records even when their employment and criminal history are identical. We can stop this now!