Why Employment Is The Missing Piece Of The Criminal Justice Puzzle

Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

This single question on an application shuts the door to job opportunities for far too many of the 70 million Americans with criminal records. And that can turn a criminal record of any kind into a de facto life sentence.

The statistics are chilling.

Two-thirds of ex-prisoners remain out of work one year after being released, and 60% are rearrested within three years.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates for ban-the-box legislation, points to a study that found employment is the single most important influence on decreasing recidivism.

Yet, though many are ready, willing, and able to work, people with criminal records are ignored by the job market. Without a steady job to support themselves and their families, people get caught in a cycle of poverty, criminality, and reincarceration.

It’s in everyone’s best interest for people with criminal records to find employment.

Consider the benefits that accrue when people with criminal records find jobs:

Increased economic stability. A study conducted by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that putting 100 former prisoners back to work would increase lifetime earnings by $55 million, increase income tax contributions by $1.9 million, boost sales tax revenues by $770,000, and save more than $2 million annually in prosecution and incarceration costs.

Increased public safety. When ex-prisoners have jobs, they’re less likely to commit new crimes. The recidivism rate among all ex-prisoners is 52.3%. But when people with criminal records find jobs, the picture changes almost completely — recidivism plunges to 16% among people who keep that job for a year.

Increased community wellbeing. Many former prisoners move to neighborhoods in heavily populated cities, and families in these neighborhoods often already struggle to gain financial stability. Consider that incarceration drops a family’s income by 15%, and 65% of former prisoners depend on a family member for financial support after they are released. Removing barriers to employment can have a positive impact on children, families, and the community at large.

The Effects Of Banning The Box

Today, ban-the-box legislation is in place in 21 states and more than 100 cities across the US. While it’s not a panacea, NELP reports positive results.

In Minneapolis, for example, once “ban the box” was implemented, more than 50% of applicants with convictions were hired. In Atlanta, 10% of new hires between March and October of 2013 were those with a criminal history. And in Durham County, North Carolina, once the “ban the box” policy was passed, the number of hires of those with criminal records tripled.

But banning the box is only a partial solution. Changing the conversation around criminal records in employment is crucial.

Context Matters

Ban-the-box legislation doesn’t prevent employers from eventually asking about criminal history or running background checks.

In running tens of thousands of background checks for companies, the GoodHire team has seen how employment screening helps employers build qualified teams while providing a safe workplace and protecting their customers.

Yet we also realize that background checks today are far from perfect — especially when it comes to candidates who have criminal records — because the picture they present is incomplete.

For one thing, criminal records tell only one part of a nuanced story. They tell that a conviction occurred, but provide no information about what has happened since. What were the circumstances around the offense? Has the person worked to change in the time since the incident occurred? What reparations occurred.

Research shows that context can make a difference. Although the Mark of a Criminal Record study found that 50% of employers are unwilling to consider equally qualified applicants because of a criminal record, a California survey showed that when employers know the nature of the offense, willingness to hire changes. For example, 84% of employers say they’re willing to hire an applicant with a misdemeanor offense.

We’re working to solve this challenge by rehumanizing employment screening.

To do this, we’re creating technology to give job candidates a voice in the increasingly tech-driven screening process. Today, information lives forever online. That’s why it’s more important than ever that job seekers have a way to provide more complete stories than court records alone can provide.

At the same time, we’re working to create tools to make it easy for employers to request additional information around a candidate’s record. That capability will help employers make individualized assessments rather than automatically screening people out based on the existence of a criminal record.

No technology solution — no matter how innovative — will remove all the barriers to employment for people with criminal records. It’s a complex problem, and our ideas are still evolving.

We’re joining the conversation as a step toward helping employers see the potential in all their candidates — even those who have made mistakes. And, if we’re being honest, that’s all of us.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this piece come from the NELP publications Ban the Box and Fair Chance Hiring — Ban the Box Toolkit.