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NELP's Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment

Ilana Novick

Over 65 million Americans have criminal records that pop up on background checks routinely used for employment screenings, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project. While they aim to promote workplace safety, background checks often dismiss otherwise qualified workers from obtaining jobs that would set them on the path to a better, crime-free life. The fewer opportunities for jobs available, the more likely former inmates are likely to return to prison. 

The financial and emotional effects of incarceration is also not relegated to the inmates themselves. According to another report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in 28 children has a parent in prison. The numbers are even worse for African-American children, at one in nine. Also according to the Pew report, Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent.
America's largest employers, including food services giant Aramark, Bank of America, and Lowes' home improvement stores, all use the kinds of background checks for which even the most minor of offenses and arrests would be marked as a red flag. As the NELP report notes, "Combine today’s tight job market, the upsurge in background checks, and the growing number of people with criminal records, and the results are untenable."

Is there anything we can do about this? The answer is maybe. Despite the tendency of lawmakers to reflexively portray themselves as tough on crime, there is some hope. In a rare but welcome step, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission reaffirmed their ruling last year that it is illegal for employers to screen out candidates with a prior offense, unless the offense was related to the job. 

Of course, these rulings are merely guidelines, but they carried enough weight that according a different NELP report, 43 cities and jurisdictions have adopted "ban the box" laws, which forbid government employees from asking whether job applicants have been convicted of a crime, as long as the crime is not related to the job, and he or she has otherwise proved to be a good candidate. 11 cities have extended the ban to private contractors, and in the case of Newark and Philadelphia, include private companies. 

Though these laws won't immediately stop the Aramarks and the Bank of Americas of the world from using overly harsh background checks, they're still an important step in the right direction for reducing recidivism, and leveling the economic playing field for the newly released.