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.
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.