A Life Sentence
On Monday, February 10, 2014, Councilmember Tommy Wells convened a hearing on the “Fair Criminal Records Screening Act of 2014”, otherwise known as the “Ban the Box bill”. This landmark bill, introduced on January 7, 2014, would remove barriers to gainful employment for returning citizens or people with arrest records. It would prohibit private employers from considering a job applicant’s arrest record during the hiring process and also restrict employers from looking into a job applicant’s prior convictions before extending a conditional offer of employment.
The proportion of District residents who have some kind of criminal or arrest record is a staggeringly high one in ten. Having an arrest record, even though about half of all arrests do not lead to convictions, can have a life-long and devastating effect on a person’s employment prospects and earning potential. Studies have found that the mere possession of an arrest record – without a conviction – can reduce an individual’s annual earning power by up to 26%.
You cannot discuss the criminal justice system without acknowledging the central role that race plays in influencing who is arrested, prosecuted, and convicted in this country. In 2001, 16% of African American men and 7.7% of Hispanics were either current or former inmates. African Americans are likewise overrepresented in the District’s jail population, comprising 90% of all inmates.
National studies confirm that people are three times less likely to recidivate if they can obtain a stable job upon release. Nearly 8,000 individuals return to the District from jail or prison each year and if we wish for them to reintegrate into the community successfully, we need to ensure that they have adequate employment. Yet, finding employers willing to hire individuals with a criminal record remains a challenge.
Legislation that limits discrimination against individuals with criminal records in city and county jobs is not new. More than 40 cities, counties, and states including the District have reevaluated their local policies that create unnecessary barriers to employment for returning citizens by removing the question on the job application regarding an individual’s criminal history, deferring background checks until later in the hiring process, and/or only performing background checks for certain positions. These initiatives both provide returning citizens with the chance to demonstrate their ability to successfully hold a government job and encourage public employers to fairly consider an applicant without relying on stereotypes or stigma.
At the hearing on the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act nearly 40 public witnesses, including 3 EJC clients, testified about the need for the DC Council to pass a strong law to protect returning citizens from employment discrimination. One EJC client, with a nearly 40 year-old record explained her struggle seeking and retaining employment because of her criminal record: “If I and others like me continue to be tried and prosecuted for past deeds, we will be condemned to perpetual poverty and no hope to pursue happiness”.