When pundits discuss America’s still too high unemployment rate, they usually tell stories of individuals with impressive work histories and college degrees who are having a hard time finding a job after being downsized. Or, they relate tales of former manufacturing employees lost in our new, more tech-driven economy. Rarely does anyone share the plight of the more than 65 million Americans with some sort of criminal past who have a hard time finding work.
We need to talk about this population more often and come up with solutions to help them secure employment. The reality is that more and more people with criminal histories are trying to enter the work force but failed background checks keep thousands of people from getting hired, some for offenses that are decades old and as minor as disorderly conduct, drinking and having too much fun in the street with friends. Some of those being denied work have never been convicted of a crime, only arrested.
Every year, more than 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons: they all need to find work so that they may support themselves and their families, contribute to their communities and to ensure poverty, frustration and desperation don’t force them to return to a life of crime. There are no federal laws that protect individuals with a criminal past from being discriminated against by employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, does suggest that employers take into account the severity of the offense, the amount of time that has passed since the crime was committed and how the crime relates to the position being applied.
We need more than EEOC guidelines. There has to be a conscious effort by the business community to weed out practices that discriminate against ex-offenders. Most accept that some with a criminal past will not be able to work in certain sectors; for example, a child predator cannot work with children. But there are countless other positions this individual can hold that won’t present a danger to society. Employers also need to understand that, just because someone committed a crime once does not mean they’ll do it again. In fact, research shows that the farther back the crime occurred, the less likely the offender will be to repeat that mistake.
Current hiring practices are locking millions out of the work force. This discrimination not only hurts the individuals in question, it damages America’s long-term economic health. We’re losing millions of workers and need to help keep our country moving forward.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)