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A Fairer Shot at Employment

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Friday, 25 March 2011 13:59

Back in November, John Schmitt and I wrote a report that estimated the number of people in the United States that have ever been to prison or convicted of a felony. We were interested in the number because a prison record or a felony conviction is a major impediment to employment. We concluded that there were about 6 million people with a prison record and somewhere between 12 and 14 million with felony convictions. Our calculations suggested that the difficulties that these groups face in the labor market probably reduce employment by 1.5 million jobs and cost the economy about $60 billion a year in lost output.

This week, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) has put out a study dealing with a broader group – those who have a criminal record of any kind, including arrests for misdemeanors and felonies, whether or not they were ultimately convicted of the crime. The estimates produced by the report's authors, Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Maurice Emsellem, suggest that there are 65 million people in the United States with a criminal record. NELP notes that people with criminal records often face difficulty in finding a job because of overly broad (and sometimes illegal) criminal background checks. As the report says:

"In the right situations, criminal background checks promote safety and security at the workplace. However, imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, but it can also be illegal under civil rights laws. Employers that adopt these and other blanket exclusions fail to take into account critical information, including the nature of an offense, the age of the offense, or even its relationship to the job."

While the report notes "a promising shift in policy and practice" towards "fairer and more accurate criminal background checks for employment," perhaps what is most discouraging is that existing anti-discrimination laws are often not being enforced, at the federal, state, or local level. NELP lays out four recommendations that would steer our country towards more reasonable employment screening procedures: 1) That the federal government enforce existing protections relating to background checks, 2) that the federal government adopt fair hiring policies for federal employment and contracting, serving as a model for all employers, 3) that state and local governments certify that their hiring policies comply with federal regulations and launch employer outreach and education campaigns, and 4) that employers take a more active stance in promoting fair hiring policies, for both their own and workers' best interests.

The authors highlight the compelling, obvious reason for following these recommendations: "millions of deserving workers will have a fairer shot at employment, allowing them to contribute to their communities and help rebuild America’s economy."

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