My hometown made me proud this week. No, we didn’t win a major sports championship (yet), but my city took a step in removing a barrier that has long been a factor in ex-offender rehabilitation.
Last week, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law a new “ban the box” ordinance, which will remove the box on employment applications that asks whether a candidate has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. The measure, which applies to city agencies and private employers of 10 or more people, also bans employers from asking about criminal records before a first interview.
Of course there are some catch-22s that prohibit the law from being perfect: first, employers who are required to conduct background checks due to industry regulations or the nature of their business will be exempt from this new law; secondly, the ordinance will allow for employers to run criminal background checks after the first interview has taken place.
Essentially, this law is a good place to start since people with criminal records face widespread employment discrimination. Studies have shown ex-offenders stand a much better chance of getting hired for a job if they reached the stage in the interview process where they can explain their past criminal records.
In Philadelphia alone, an astonishing 300,000 residents have criminal records, many of which have long been out of the judicial system, including on probation or parole, and yet still can’t seem to find work. Nationally, Sixty-five million – or one in five adults – have a criminal record on file with the states and their numbers are growing. Thousands of people with conviction records will return to society to live, work and hopefully, be productive members of society. Still, in most places around the country, folks, whose only chance at rehabilitation is through employment, are met with ‘Felons Need Not Apply” signs.
Over the years, employers using criminal background checks to weed out applicants have risen with as many as 80 percent of large employers in the U.S. now screening job applicants and current employees for criminal records. Likewise, a survey found that over 60 percent of employers would “probably not” or “definitely not” be willing to hire an individual with a criminal record.
Advocates for ex-offenders have long cited the direct link connecting those statistics with the recidivism rate of ex-offenders, which stands at 65 percent. As such, these advocates have been pushing both city and state municipalities to recognize the need to “Ban the Box.” So far, four states throughout the U.S. have enacted Ban the Box legislation, including New Mexico, Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota. Three states with the new laws reportedly have achieved lower rates in recidivism than the national average.
With the national unemployment rate still hovering around nine percent, sympathy for unemployed ex-offenders isn’t going to be a popular sentiment. However, simply turning our backs on the most fragile members of our community can only have disastrous effects on everyone’s quality of life. People with jobs are significantly less likely to be re-arrested or commit crimes. They are also more likely to pay taxes and less likely to be on public assistance. Without removing the barriers that make it harder for ex-offenders to find work, many will have no choice but to go out into the streets and make work.