Category Archives: discrimination

Convictions: Who feels the pain and for how long?

Once again, a shout out  to one of my favorite bloggers, Matt Kelley, who writes for the Criminal Justice blog at Change.org.  Matt recently highlighted some new research that provides data on the lasting costs of incarceration, highlighting who’s most affected and why this increases the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The study,  Incarceration and Social Inequality ,  conducted by sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington, appears in the MIT journal Daedalus.  In their research the authors found that the social inequality produced by mass incarceration was so enduring for 3 reasons: 

  1.  It’s invisible in that prisoners aren’t typically included in employment and other statistics, 
  2.  It’s cumulative in its impact,  and
  3. It affects not only adults but their children, spanning generations. 
Among their findings:
  •  Of men aged 20 to 34 — the largest chunk of the prison population incarceration rates have grown the most for the least educated populations.  In 1980, 10 percent of African Americans in this age range who hadn’t completed high school were incarcerated, today that rate is 37%.  Similarly, in 1980 less than 1 in 50 White dropouts were incarcerated, by 2008, that rate was had climbed to 1 in 8.
  •  The incarceration rate for black men born between 1975 to 1979  nearly quadrupled from the rate for those born twenty years earlier.  
  •  People who have been incarcerated and fall into the lowest income group, have the least mobility of anyone.
  •  The impact of conviction goes beyond the person sentenced to a prison term  to adversely affect their children.  How many kids  have a parent who is incarcerated?  Nearly 2 percent of white children, 3.5 % of Latino children and 11 % of African  children.  

This  dovetails with what legal scholar  Michelle Alexander talks about in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.  Alexander’s argument, well- supported by research, is that the unprecedented rise in people being sent to prison since the 1970s is creating a permanent underclass.  Individuals end up being punished in perpetuity, she says,  as their records are often to deny them employment, housing and other opportunities that might help them rebuild their lives.

 

You can read the full report here.    

 

 

 

 
Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under class issues, criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, justice reform, prison reform, reentry, research, second chances

Can you really erase your record?

I’ve alluded before to the fact that getting a conviction expunged doesn’t  guarantee you’ll come up clean in a background check.  Often, it takes no more than a Google search to find news of an arrest or sentencing, while some  government databases can still carry this  information well after an individual has gone to the trouble and expense to get his/her record sealed. 

Now some legislators in Ohio are trying to change that.  A bill introduced by Sen. Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland), would not only enable ex-offenders to get their records cleared after 5 years.  According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the new law would also:

1. Require individuals and private businesses to erase the historical record by destroying “records” they hold about the convictions of those whose cases are sealed.

2.  Require individuals, newspapers and other news media to delete stories from the Internet and their archives about the arrests and convictions of those who win expungement orders.  This, or face fines and/or damages from $250,000 to $1,000,000. 

Although the bill seems like a bit of a reach —  particularly in its attempt to get media organizations to delete the historical record — it does shed light on the  difficulties of starting over, even if you play by the rules.  My take:  People with criminal records who have had their records supposedly sealed, should not then have to have them used against them just because the information remains in the public record.

The question is whether a bill like this is the way to address it.  What do you think should be done?

2 Comments

Filed under criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, expungement, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, second chances

Criminal background checks under fire: an update

The discrimination lawsuit alleging the U.S. Census Bureau inappropriately used  arrest records for  job screening continues to heat up.  

On August 5, attorneys filed an amended complaint against the Commerce Department noting that  the EEOC had warned the Census Bureau in advance that its hiring procedures could result in “massive” racial and ethnic discrimination.  In seeking to fill more than one million temporary jobs earlier this year,  the Census Bureau subjected all applicants to an FBI records check and required that  they provide written proof of the dispositions for any arrests or convictions.

 Although people with criminal records are not specifically protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using such criteria to deny employment has been found to have disparate impact on certain protected groups, and is therefore discriminatory. 

In the lawsuit, which was brought by a coalition of civil rights organizations,  attorneys allege that  African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who applied for Census jobs were at a disadvantage, since since these ethnicities experience a disproportionate number of arrests relative to their populations in the U.S.

Ironically, under the Census Bureau’s hiring  procedures some applicants who actually worked during the 1990 Census were denied jobs this time around.  Due to the ease of background checks, this also has become a problem in private industry, as laid off individuals – many of whom have been working productively for years –  find old offenses coming back to haunt them in their job search.  

As I wrote earlier, the EEOC is working to come up with new guidelines regarding the  use of criminal records in screening.  In general, employers are barred from using blanket bans and  should be taking into account whether an offense relates to the work being done, as well as the individual’s suitability for the job.  It may be justifiable, for example, for a company to decline to hire someone convicted of theft or embezzlement as an accountant or cashier. It’s less defensible to use an arrest record as a reason not to hire someone for such a job because they were  convicted of a drug or alcohol charge, particularly if they’ve completed treatment and remained clean.

Let’s hope the EEOC comes out with something in writing soon.   Perhaps these new guidelines  might be more difficult to ignore.

Leave a comment

Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, hope for ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, reentry

Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame.  His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog.  There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know.  In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable.  In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man.  Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars.  Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy.  As he confessed in a post earlier this year:

“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”

In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:

Expectations vs. Reality

By James E. Walker Jr.

Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man.  A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.

During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison.  I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside.  Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously.  I did.  I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.

Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days.  It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience.  For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.

Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book.  Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me?  The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior.  Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.

And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success.  I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me.  All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison.  Why shouldn’t it?  Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?

What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different.  Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced.  I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses.  Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do.  In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing.  You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that.  Ain’t nothing happenin’!

In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position.  The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me.  The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job.  An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me.  A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction.  When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation.  The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison.  When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.

The list goes on and on…

Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself.  I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me.  Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls.  I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications.  I’ve stopped blasting my resume.  I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.

I still selectively submit applications online.  I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter.  I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible.  I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior.  I do so clearly and genuinely.  I don’t wallow or grovel.  I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.

Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm.  The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization.  My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me.  They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past.  They genuinely like me, the person.  I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment.  My gratitude extends beyond all measure.

At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me.  Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society.  Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.

So does my determination to bridge it.

20 Comments

Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, education ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, Guest blogger, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, starting over, Uncategorized

Job interviews and ex-offenders: maybe it’s not the crime that cost you the job

In my last two class sessions, we’ve been talking about answering job interview questions.  Yes, that includes the $64,000 biggie:  Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

And yet, for all the emphasis put on being able to look an employer in the eye and honestly discuss your record or those huge gaps in your work history —  it’s often the simple and seemingly benign questions that can trip up an ex-offender. 

This came to light last week after a lively class  discussion about what to say when an employer opens an interview by saying:  “Tell me about yourself.” 

Most of my students felt this was an easy question. 

It’s not. In fact, if you don’t handle this one carefully you can end up stumbling right out of the starting gate.   Despite seeming open-ended, an employer isn’t asking for your life history here. Nor does he want  a long-winded dissertation on why this job  is your dream come true.  As one inmate wisely noted, the employer doesn’t just want to know what you’ve done in the past, but who you are and what you can do for them.   In Michelle Rafter’s  blog for SecondAct.com, Georgia Tech University professor Nathan Bennett  offers good advice when he says,  focus not on what you enjoy, but on what you bring to an organization that is uinque and hard for others to copy.

So how do you  do this?   The key is tailoring your skills and abilities to the needs of the employer, but in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like a canned sales pitch.  Sally Chopping, a Pittsburgh-based interview and public speaking coach, suggests breaking the question down into 3 parts

  1. Identify the 3 most important qualities for the job.
  2. Mention the most relevant last job you had and highlight one of your achievements.
  3. Say why you’d like to work for the particular company. 

If you put these together as she does, you end up with a response that encapsulates your unique strengths and abilities in a way that shows how they will benefit the company. 

This video, courtesy of CollegeGrad.com, (which is equally applicable to jobs that don’t require college degrees, by the way) also spells out a good approach to the “Tell me about yourself”  query:

How about you?   What have you said when an employer opens with this question?  What’s worked and what hasn’t?

Leave a comment

Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

Are ex-offenders the new “untouchables”?

“I had been wrong about our criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected by racial bias, but a different beast entirely. It functions today as a caste system. It functions to lock poor people of color in a permanent second class status for life, much like Jim Crow once did.”

Wow.

I heard this driving home from my class at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center today, and had to resist the urge to yell “yes,” to the radio.  The speaker was Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a whle back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

Author Michelle Alexander

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?

3 Comments

Filed under class issues, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, employment assistance ex-offenders, reentry, second chances

How law-abiding are you? Take 2

Back at the beginning of the month, I invited readers to take a brief poll that asked two questions:

  1. Have you ever committed a crime?
  2. If so, were you arrested or did you get away with it?

The purpose of the exercise was to show that, in many cases, the poor judgment and casual morality we attribute to offenders may be shared by plenty of others who have never served time.  In fact,  a full 90 percent of the poll respondents admitted to breaking the law.  Of those, only 21 percent were actually arrested, and 58 percent said they got away with what they did completely.

Not surprisingly, these unscientific results dovetail with actual research.   Generally only a small percentage, even of violent crimes, result in arrests.

In fact, in a 1995 report on interpreting crime statistics,  Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of  Violence noted:

The probability of arrest for these very serious violent  offenses is very low, even when self-reported offenses were restricted to those involving a weapon or injury. For males, less than 10 arrests per 100 self-reported robberies and less than five arrests per 100 aggravated assaults.

Now ultimately, if a person commits enough crimes, the probability of arrest goes up.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that the mere absence of a record doesn’t mean someone is a “safer” choice for an employer to hire.   As I’ve written in the past, using arrest and convictions records to screen out candidates for jobs and to make decisions about individuals isn’t foolproof.

As these statistics show:  you’re not necessarily getting people with better judgment.  In some cases, you’re merely getting people with better luck.

Yesterday in answering questions for ex-offenders, Jail to Job’s Eric Mayo recommended an offender “look at a criminal record as a handicap he has to overcome.”   I think that’s pretty good advice for society, as well.  When employers consider a job candidate, the smartest ones look at any disability or shortcomings  in terms of how this impacts the measure of the whole person.  Can he or she still meet the requirements of the job?   How does she present herself?  Based on what I’ve seen of this person  do I feel that I can trust him?  Does this individual seem to have taken responsibility and learned from his/her mistakes and shortcomings?

In many ways, the answers to these questions will tell you much more about a person than his or her record.

1 Comment

Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, ex-offender psychology, hope for ex-offenders, second chances, taking responsibility