Listen up employers: the U.S. takes aim at criminal background checks

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Yay! Just yay! That’s what I thought when I saw today’s news that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged two major companies with discrimination in hiring by using background checks to disqualify potential employees.

The EEOC lawsuit alleged BMW and Dollar Tree both discriminated against African Americans in using evidence of a criminal record to terminate employment of workers, many of whom had been employed at these companies for several years.

The federal agency was smart in choosing cases in which the violations appear to be so blatant. Even though both companies have challenged the suits, it will be interesting to see how this proceeds. It’s high time employers were reminded what their responsibilities are under the law, as well as the fact that a black mark in someone’s past shouldn’t define their future.

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The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       – John C. Maxwell, author

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Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Out and Employed is BACK!

Yes, it’s been awhile.   More than a year and a half, actually.  When I took a break from writing this blog, it wasn’t because I’d lost interest in the issues faced by folks who have criminal records. Rather, it was that I needed to pursue some writing that actually earned me money.

So I did.  And I continue to.

But a funny thing happened along the way.  Many of you didn’t stop reading.  In fact, daily page views for Out and Employed steadily rose.  Some of you continued to share your struggles with me privately or even send me questions.  I felt bad about not always being able to respond.  I figured maybe other blogs or websites would pick up the slack, and they have.  There’s a lot more out there than when I started this blog in early 2009.

And yet…it still seems that there can never be enough.  So as of today, I will be relaunching this blog and getting back up to date on the state of the reentry challenge — what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what the new issues are.  I’ve already updated my links to add new resources and fix the broken ones (thank you to the careful readers who pointed those out).  Please let me know if there are any other useful sites that I should have on my blogroll.

My initial impressions: Obviously, the job market hasn’t gotten any easier.  But the information out there to help ex-offenders and others with criminal records has definitely improved.  I remain in awe of The National Reentry Resource Center, which continues to offer the best one-stop shopping for anyone looking for assistance making the transition from incarceration back to working life.  In fact, a new addition on their site gets my…

Most useful help line:  Did you know that in many parts of the country you can dial 211 if you need help finding food, housing, health care, counseling or other community services?   I didn’t.  To see if this service is available in your area, go here and enter your zip code.

Most encouraging statistics:  Recidivism — that’s folks returning to prison — is significantly down in a number of states.  A report issued by the Council of State Governments in September found Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Vermont each were able to reduce their recidivism rates through a variety of measures. These included programs targeting those at highest risk for reoffending, improved training for parole officers, more community-based housing and increased use of home monitoring.  For each state, the study compared three-year post release recidivism rates for individuals released in 2005 with those released in 2007.  Michigan showed the biggest improvement with an 18% drop in its rate, while Kansas was second with at 15% reduction.  For more details you can read the report.

Most pressing questions:   Here’s where you can help me.  What are your questions?  What challenges are you facing right now?  What would you like to see me write about?  Please let me know and I’ll try to cover it in a future post.

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Filed under employment assistance ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, recidivism, reentry, reentry resources, starting over

Reentry updates: prison reform, women ex-offenders and the perils of Facebook

There’s a lot going on in the justice/reentry arena these days.  Here’s a quick update of what I’ve been following:

 Justice reform: will we or won’t we?

Last month, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb’s newly updated prison reform bill.  Alas, soon after, Webb announced he wouldn’t be running for a second term.  Which leaves me wondering: will a combination of  the Senator’s lame duck status and Congress’ need to focus on more pressing issues (wars, spending cuts, etc.) , push national justice reform again to the back burner?

Or will the action, as some – like the folks at Right on Crime - suggest, come more at the state level?  That’s certainly been the trend lately.    Last week, Georgia approved a bill that would set up a similar commission that will recommend reforms to that state’s prison system.   Meanwhile, the House in Oklahoma passed what’s being called the “most significant prison reform package in decades.”  Among other measures, the bill would make terms run concurrently and enhance the ability for sentences to be served within the community.

In addition, Ray Hill’s  the Prison Show  in Houston will be putting some artistic emphasis behind the need for change in our justice system when he hosts the Prison Reform Film Festival next month.

Women’s issues

I’ve worked almost exclusively with female offenders over the past couple of years.  So  I know their experiences in the justice system are very different than those of men, who make up the majority of offenders.   So I was happy to see NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show devote a segment recently to the unique challenges women face in terms of serving sentences and reentrying society.  There was also an interesting piece on Russian prison reforms are helping women. 

Facebook Follies

In my employment skills classes I caution students to be careful about the personal information they share on sites  like Facebook or Myspace. It’s standard procedure for many employers to turn to social networking pages or places like  Twitter  to find out more about a job candidate or who they’re  hanging out with.   Everyone’s heard stories about how ill-advised boasts or drunken photos have cost people jobs .

Nor are  employers or job recruiters the only people who might be looking at what you post.   As a recent article suggests supervision officers may soon find it easy to track someone’s post-release behavior online, including whether he or she is still associating with criminals.   This particular article even goes so far as to suggest how probation and parole officers might document what they find  in order to have evidence in a revocation hearing.

Another reason it might be worth keeping an eye on your site, and what you and others post there.

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More on justice reform: which ex-offenders need the most help?

As expected, Senator James Webb (D-Va), reintroduced his bill on criminal justice reform on Tuesday. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act,  first drafted two years ago, would set up a bipartisan group  to conduct an 18-month review of the U.S. criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations on what needs to be done to fix it.

The bill was passed by the House last year, but held up in the Senate  over concerns about how it would be financed. In an interview last week, Webb’s spokesman Will Jenkins said the Senator ” never wavered in his commitment to reform and was determined to press on this year.”  The fact that Webb  has several Republican co-sponsors, Jenkins added, “has opened the door for compromise.”

Will he get it?  Conservatives have recently embraced justice reform, most notably through Right on Crime, an organization pushing for fiscally responsible change  at the local and state levels. Their goal is to recalibrate an incarceration-heavy system that has led to diminishing returns in terms of safety and effectiveness.  Mark Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a signatory for Right on Crime, said there are good things about Webb’s bill and that he believes the commission could be financed  using current corrections funding.  ” I’d hate to see the proposal held up over costs,” he added.

Beware, the pressure for quick fixes

Still, its passage will likely come down to whether legislators have the patience for a detailed review or feel the need to  press for more immediate reforms.  To that end,  a newly released report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides a preview of where they might start.  The report, which grew out of a 2009 request by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) to hold a summit on proven ways to both serve justice and reduce crime and recidivism, offers a useful summary of what works and what doesn’t.

The report takes on a state system that costs more than $50 billion annually.   Apparently, only Medicaid increased faster as a proportion of total state budgets.  Meanwhile correction spending grew at nearly three times the rate of spending on higher education. At the same time, the authors caution that pushing fiscal auterity alone will lead to ill-advised policy decisions. Already they note:

Although many states and localities have made successful strides in prisoner reentry, elected officials in a growing number of jurisdictions are finding budget pressures and other conditions make it practically impossible to finance, on a large scale, strategies necessary to make someone’s transition from prison to the community safe and successful.  

Scary.  Especially considering how cursory so many reentry efforts are right now.

Where should the funding go?

So how to make avoid making ill-advised funding decisions while paring costs?  The report suggests four areas where funds and energies should be targeted (read “justice reinvestment”) to get the most bang for the buck.

  1.  Focus should be on people most likely to reoffend.
  2. Programs should be based on scientific evidence and have measurable outcomes.
  3. Efforts should be made to improve community supervision.
  4. Place-based strategies should be emphasized.

Yes,  such a reallocation of resources will result in some people falling through the cracks.  Ex-offenders with lesser crimes, for example, may lose out on some access to programs and services to aid in their reentry.  But the authors also provides evidence that directing efforts to those individuals most likely to commit a new crime will be more beneficial in terms of reducing the crime rate and improving public safety.

At any rate, the report provides a  useful summary of current thinking and programs, so  it’s  well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Some other highlights:

  • Drug treatment in the community is  more effective than while in  prison.
  • Prison education programs work, (yeah!), but  community based programs have more an impact on recidivism rates than those based in prison.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy that is action-oriented is the more successful in changing behavior and reducing recidivism than fear tactics and emotional appeals, talk therapy or other client-centered approaches.
  • Focusing services, resources and attention to certain high crime areas will have a bigger payoff in terms of reducing crime and recidivism.  Probation and other reentry service offices located in where the individuals live have been found to be more effective.

Readers, what are your feelings on reform?  What do you expect to happen?

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope for ex-offenders: increased focus on justice reform puts spotlight on reentry

It’s unlikely that it made any of  the 2011 trend lists.  But it should have:

What’s Out : Being tough on crime by throwing people in prison.                                             

What’s In:   Being smart about crime by putting serious offenders behind bars and finding alternative and more cost effective punishments for nonviolent offenders.

It’s true.  For the first time in more than thirty years, we’ve got both the left and the right calling for a more sensible way to deal with crime in the U.S.   Two years after Senator James Webb,D-VA  became the lone wolf decrying the nonsense of the U.S. imprisoning people at a rate five times the world’s average, even conservatives have embraced the need to do something to repair a costly and ineffective system that doesn’t make us any safer.

I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first started reading about  Right on Crime, the conservative organization backed by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Grover Norquist.   After reading their proposals, however, I’m encouraged that a platform being advanced by the folks who usually campaign to lock up lawbreakers no matter the cost, may actually lead to some real change.   For one, they make no bones about laying out what the problem is and how we got to our current state of diminishing returns:

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

All of this, is of course, true, and something that most people can agree on regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.  Obviously, the reason we’re looking at it now is primarily budgetary.  It’s just too expensive to put so many people in prison.  But if that can spur reform, I’ll take it.

One of the provisions I’m most intrigued about is the conservatives desire to deal with the whole issue of negligent hiring suits, which make so many employers reluctant to hire parolees.   Reducing the potential risk of such lawsuits could  go a long way towards bringing down recidivism, since people with jobs are less likely to commit new crimes.   The challenge is to see whether this will change how employers behave in a labor market with double-digit unemployment.  

In two recent New York Times opinion pieces, author Tina Rosenberg also emphasized that” prisoner re-entry has become a hot topic in the field of corrections, largely because of the increasing number of people being released (many as states cut back on budgets).  She also did a great job of describing the challenges faced by returnees and describing the patchwork nature of reentry programs — highlighting a few like the renowned Delancey Street residence in San Francisco and Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), which work.  There’s also a piece here citing programs in states like Michigan, that have been successful in helping ex-inmates find jobs. 

What do you think is going to happen in terms of criminal justice reform?   Earlier this month, Senator Webb and The Prison Fellowship sponsored a symposium at George Mason on “Undoing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.”  The State of Louisiana recently announced it’s going to take the plunge to reform it’s prison system.  Will this all be a lot of talk or will/can the country follow suit?

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An ex-offender’s story and other reading

I’ve been bad about posting  as I’ve tried to get off to a good start workwise in the New Year.   While I get up to speed, here are  some of articles I’ve come across that might be of interest to ex-offenders and others who work with returning citizens: 

On starting over:   There’s  an interesting piece in the Washington Post Magazine that  tells the story of  49-year-old Louis B. Sawyer, who spent 25 years in prison and the challenges he’s facing trying to start life over.   The writer does a great job of showing the multitude of challenges from housing, to finding a job, rebuilding trust that former felons face. 

On the unintended victims of high incarceration rates:   A growing number of children are facing life  with an incarcerated parent, according to an article in California Watch.  A recent study by non-profit Justice Strategies found that 1.7 million children in the U.S. now have a parent serving time, and as a result suffer the emotional trauma that goes along with that.     A shout out  to Piper Kerman for tweeting this one.  For more information you can also refer to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Family and Corrections Network.

On mental illness in prison:  Proof that this isn’t just an American problem.  A recent study of a the Central Prison in Bangalore, India found that nearly 80 percent of inmates suffered from either mental illness or substance abuse. 

On our flawed system:   New York Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer received the John Jay /HF Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Awards, according to the Crime Report.   In the New York Magazine article, “I Did It,”  Robert Kolker told the story of  Frank Sterling, who served19 years in prison after making a false confession.   The Inquirer looked at the growing problems with Philadelphia’s criminal justice system in its “Justice Delayed, Dismissed, Denied” series.

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