Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part One

This is Part One of a very long article we found in The New York Times archives about people with a prison record (mostly men) who cannot get a job. They are caught up in a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to escape. Often the charge behind their imprisonment was minor—a result of poverty—and might easily have been dismissed. 

Furthermore, many of these individuals possess skills that answer needs of our job market. Thus both worker and employer lose out. The situation described in this article from two years ago is unchanged today.

Because of its length we have presented this article in four separate blogs.

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Michael Hugh Mirsky landed a temporary job in December rolling stacks of crated milk and orange juice to the loading docks at a commercial dairy in central New Jersey. He’s not making much, and he doesn’t know how long it will last, but after 30 months of unemployment, he counts himself lucky. Mr. Mirsky is a convicted criminal, and work is hard to find.

A series of unfortunate events that began in 2012 when Mr. Mirsky lost a job as a Verizon technician culminated last year in a guilty plea for resisting arrest. He is facing the foreclosure of his home; his church has told him that he cannot serve as an usher; he is thousands of dollars in arrears on child support payments for his 8-year-old daughter. Even as the economy improves, Mr. Mirsky has been unable to find a permanent position so he can start rebuilding his life.

“Even your lower-paying fast-food jobs are now doing background checks,” he said. “How can I pay child support if I can’t get a job?”

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch highlights in 2016 the difficulties faced by inmates — many of them low-risk drug offenders, officials say — as they return to society.

The share of American men with criminal records — particularly black men — grew rapidly in recent decades as the government pursued aggressive law enforcement strategies, especially against drug crimes. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, those men are having particular trouble finding work. Men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

The reluctance of employers to hire people with criminal records, combined with laws that place broad categories of jobs off-limits, is not just a frustration for men like Mr. Mirsky; it is also taking a toll on the broader economy. It is preventing millions of American men from becoming, in that old phrase, productive members of society.

“Prior to the prison boom, when convictions were restricted to a smaller fraction of the population, it wasn’t great for their rehab potential but it wasn’t having a huge impact,” said Devah Pager, a Harvard professor of sociology. “Now such a large fraction of the population is affected that it has really significant implications, not just for those people, but for the labor market as a whole.”

Employers, of course, have always taken an interest in the histories of prospective employees. Banks do not want to hire embezzlers; trucking companies do not want drunken drivers. Schools and security companies don’t want to hire criminals of any kind. But the easy availability of online databases lets employers investigate everyone — indeed, it makes hard to justify not looking. Surveys show roughly nine in 10 United States employers check databases of criminal records when hiring for at least some positions. Some focus solely on felony convictions; others also consider misdemeanors or arrests.

Rising concern that background checks are being used to systematically exclude applicants with criminal records is fueling a national “ban the box” movement to improve their chances. The name refers to the box that job applicants are sometimes required to check if they have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor. Fourteen states and several dozen cities have passed laws, mostly in recent years, that generally require employers to postpone background checks until the later stages of the hiring process.

Georgia became the latest state to join that list when Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order Monday. It described the new policy as a matter of fairness and a way to strengthen the state’s economy by expanding the pool of workers. New Jersey passed its own “ban the box” law last year. It is scheduled take effect March 1. So help is on the way for Mr. Mirsky, too.

To be continued

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