Expanding Job Opportunities After Prison

New Jersey Senate heard arguments last week for legislation that would ban the exclusion of formerly incarcerated people from applying for jobs on the sole basis of their records. Part of the Opportunity to Compete Act in NJ, “ban the box” proposals like this one refer to the box convicted felons must check on employment paperwork.

The Equal Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) ruling during the 1980s told employers they could refuse to hire former offenders as long as they promised to devote somber thought to the issue. The ruling takes employers’ word of honor that they’ll consider the incarcerated person’s offense(s), time elapsed since conviction and the penance they’ve served.

Modest as it is, many employers don’t even pretend to honor the EEOC’s request. The National Employment Law Project compiled hundreds of job postings that say things like “Must have no previous misdemeanors or felonies.” Such postings clearly violate EEOC’s good faith.

Look again from the management perspective. If a previously convicted hiree reoffends on company time, it can mean a negligent hiring lawsuit. These suits are strychnine for corporate image and courts seldom favor the employer. A 2001 study said such cases find the firms guilty about 72% of the time and they pay out the nose, averaging $1.6 million in compensation for damages.

Among a host of reasons, this institutional discrimination against previously incarcerated people means many of them are unemployed. No one has an exact nationwide fix on the percentage, but one estimate puts it at 60% in New York State. Of 550 previously incarcerated people recently interviewed in Washington DC, 46% reported that they were not employed.

Reducing those numbers by helping previously incarcerated people reenter the workforce results in “less crime [and] lower public costs,” as Ilana Novick has recently argued here on PolicyShop. It also puts more “people on their way to economic security.” Indeed, one New York-based program doing this type of work documented short-term employment rate improvements and long-term reductions in recidivism among its most at-risk participants in 2011.

“Ban the box” legislation is another effective method of getting more formerly incarcerated people back to work. And as policy scholars Michael Stoll and Shawn Bushway have recently argued, “restricting the costs of negligent-hiring lawsuits” would further weaken the deterrents against hiring them.

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