Mass Incarceration, Poverty, and Jobs

I was in prison and you visited me – Matt. 25:36

Today is a time of mass incarceration in the United States. One-quarter of the world’s prisoners are locked up in the U.S., a country with just 6% of the world’s population. Many of those in prison and jail are African American men. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration has become “the new Jim Crow,” a way to maintain a racial caste system that locks a racial group into an inferior position by law and custom.

Mandatory, lengthy and disparate sentences; disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentences; racial profiling and racial bias in policing; politicians’ exploitation of fears about crime and public safety to advance their political career; the privatization of prisons and need to fill prison beds; poverty and the lack of opportunities have all contributed to this social catastrophe.  But people of faith are called to seek a fairer system.

Ban the Box

Mass incarceration is directly linked to poverty. One important way we can begin to break this connection is to “ban the box.”

On many job application forms, employers require applicants to check a box indicating whether they have a history of arrest or conviction. It is a common barrier to employment for the 70 million adults with this history. The question is illegal if it is used to screen out those with a record. But it is still widely used on job application forms. Since it is nearly impossible to know how an employer uses the response to this question, many locations are seeking to ban the box, that is, they are prohibiting employers from asking this question until late in the job application process.

A personal history of incarceration reduces a person’s chances of being hired and, when he or she does obtain a job, their wage is typically lower than it would have been without a record.  Some 70 million adults have a history of arrest or conviction, including about one-third of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54. Surveys show roughly 90% of employers check databases of criminal records when hiring for at least some positions, even though background checks for a criminal past are notoriously inaccurate. When the background check system is used to identify a felon, it is wrong nearly half (42%) of the time.

Studies with testers (matched individuals, similar in all regards except for a history of incarceration) who pose as job seekers find that someone with a criminal conviction is half as likely to receive a callback or a job offer as a similar applicant without a criminal history. The difference is significantly greater for African Americans than for Whites. But if a question about prior convictions is posed after an employer has had personal contact with a potential employee, for example, after an initial screening process, the negative impact is reduced by 15%

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found that the systematic exclusion of people with criminal records is, effectively, a form of discrimination against black men who are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. In other words, the EEOC has determined that questions about applicants’ prior arrests or convictions cannot be used to screen out those who respond affirmatively. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people against overt, intentional discrimination and also against policies that appear to be neutral but, in fact, have a disproportionate impact on a particular group. Screening out job candidates who report a prior arrest and/or conviction has a disparate impact on people of color. The EEOC has established clear guidelines for when a candidates’ criminal background may be considered. But many firms continue to routinely ask about and use this information in their initial evaluations of job candidates.
Fifteen states, Washington, D.C., and over 100 cities and counties have passed laws that require employers to postpone background checks until the later stages of the hiring process. An ideal law would prohibit most public and private employers from inquiring about criminal history until after making a conditional job offer. A criminal history should not be an automatic bar to employment. If a background check were necessary, employers would consider only those convictions with a direct relationship to job duties and responsibilities and would consider the time passed since the offense. An employer would revoke the conditional job offer only if the offense is relevant.

The National Employment Law Project  has many useful resources including a Tool Kit to get your city, county or state to ban the box. See whether your state has “banned the box.” 

More about Criminal Justice Reform from the UCC