Every year, more than 600,000 Americans are released from prison back into their communities. And when they are, even a minor criminal record can make it hard to get a job and a place to live.
Between 70 million and 100 million Americans — almost one in three — have some kind of criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Center. And thanks to the Internet and policy decisions, any criminal record can be a block to employment, building credit or even public assistance.
“Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet,” Rebecca Vallas, director of policy of the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, wrote in The Nation. Nine in 10 employers to criminal background checks, she points out, as do four in five landlords.
A recent study from Villanova University finds that national poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and criminal records.
“Punishment has been transformed from a temporary to a lifelong experience for many justice-involved individuals,” Vallas says.
Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker introduced the REDEEM Act last year, which, if enacted, would make it easier for juveniles who commit nonviolent crimes to expunge or seal their records, lift the federal ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for low-level drug offenders, offer incentives to states that currently try juveniles as adults to encourage them to raise the age to 18 and ban solitary confinement for children, except in the most dangerous cases.
Many states have addressed the issue locally. In April, Virginia joined 17 other states that have banned questions regarding criminal history for state government jobs. New York and 10 other cities have passed similar “ban the box” laws. (The “box” refers to the check box on job applications asking the applicant if they have been convicted of a crime.)
When he signed the order, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe acknowledged how much criminal background impact Black job candidates, calling it a “double whammy” when combined with racism.
“We all know that this box has an unequal impact on our minority families,” McAuliffe said. “One study found that 34 percent of white job applicants without a record received a callback, while only 17 percent of those with a criminal record did. Among African Americans, 14 percent without a criminal record received a callback while only 5 percent of those with a record heard back from a potential employer.”
McAuliffe encouraged private employers to follow the state’s example, and Target, WalMart and Home Depot have followed suit, according to Think Progress.
According to NELP, numerous studies show that people need family support, community help and economic opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system. A steady job provides financial security, but also connections to new people and new behaviors, according to a NELP fact sheet.
Men with criminal records account for a third of the nonworking men between the ages of 25-54, according to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
And unemployment effects the whole country. Joblessness among the formerly incarcerated reduced the GDP in 2008 by $57 to $65 million, according to The Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“An inability to find employment was a major reason ex-offenders wind up breaking the law again,” said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed a law similar to Virginia’s.