A detailed look at the professional difficulties faced by people with criminal records
When we talk about the American criminal justice system, we often focus on the many ways in which it’s broken—how it targets and harshly punishes black men, how America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how the national prison system is run like a profitable business instead of an institution that rehabs people who’ve made mistakes. But rarely does this conversation extend to those who’ve been released. It’s easy to think that life gets better once a person is free, but for millions of people living with criminal records, life doesn’t improve. If anything, it becomes even harder.
This is due, in large part, to the prevailing stigma associated with those living with a criminal record—a stigma that’s shaped by three core factors:
- We hear a lot about recidivism rates. Recidivism is defined as relapsing into criminal behavior after being released from prison. The National Institute of Justice reports that nearly 60% of prisoners are arrested again within one year of release. These statistics go deeper and deeper into the life cycle of a prisoner’s release, with recidivism rates rising at the 3- and 5-year marks. These rates are often cited in the literature and quoted on news programs. What these rates should prove is that imprisonment is failing to prepare people for life after prison. But unfortunately, they perpetuate a false belief that people released from prison will always be criminals.
- Incarceration statistics also influence this stigma. When we analyze the ethnic background of the more than 2 million prisoners in America, this population is overwhelmingly black. The NAACP reports that black men and women are 5 times more likely to be jailed than their white counterparts. From a justice standpoint, this should illuminate the racial disparity, and thus, the ways in which the criminal justice system is heavily biased against the black community. Instead, it paints the picture of the “average” criminal as black and dangerous.
- Print and broadcast news further feeds this image of criminals. News networks and publications are so influential that their effects have been measured in studies. One such study, conducted by the Sentencing Project nonprofit, was reported in 2014. In that study, it was revealed that whites misjudged the amount of crime committed by blacks and Latinos and those perceptions helped shape, and distort, criminal justice policies across the country.
In short, the national narrative is wrong—it defines the common criminal profile as a person of color. It undervalues people who were once imprisoned,, under the assumption that they’ll only commit additional crimes and return to jail. This view is problematic for many reasons, but the most immediate impact is the way criminal records can ruin a person’s life long after they’re free.
The rest of the story
For some, recidivism and incarceration rates may seem like proof that formerly incarcerated people shouldn’t acclimate back into society, but those stats are often misinterpreted, and, even then, only tell half of the story. The true profile of a criminal isn’t what we see on the nightly news or on primetime dramas. It’s more closely associated with men like Otis Johnson.
He served 44 years and was released in 2014, at 69 years old. For many people his age, this is a stage of life at which they’re contemplating retirement, if they haven’t already started. Johnson was forced to figure out New York’s public transportation system, set up a bank account, learn the Internet, and familiarize himself with brands at the grocery store. His 44 years behind bars did little to prepare him for life on the outside.
In an Al Jazeera piece about Johnson and the overall state of U.S. incarceration, Harvard Kennedy School researcher Marieke Liem described the plight of the modern ex-prisoner. “Prison decides when lights go on and when they go off. Every moment of the day is scheduled. When you have been in the prison system for the majority of your life, how can you be expected to function as a member of society? And make a plan?” she said.
Surely, it was and continues to be, difficult for Johnson to navigate everyday life. There’s no doubt his greatest struggles began when he tried to look for work and generate income.
You don’t have to look far to see how the criminal record stigma stymies employment opportunities. A 2016 Penn State study showed that it’s actually getting more difficult for ex-prisoners to secure interviews. At one point, they could bypass some of the common application pitfalls and explain how their record wasn’t an indication of their potential today. But now, thanks to stringent company policies that forbid the hire of people with criminal records, even the strongest interview can’t get them to the front of the pack.
“A hiring manager might tell a candidate with a criminal past that she didn’t seem to pose any inherent risk, yet [she] still could not get hired based on the company’s policy,” writes Michele W. Berger.
For the more than 70 million Americans living with criminal records, this is a huge roadblock to building a new life. And that roadblock is built upon a firm foundation of flawed systems that further support the reigning stigma.
Whether or not you’re living with a criminal record, you’ve seen the box on a job application before. It’s the box where an applicant must indicate if they have a criminal conviction. Checking the box stops roughly 12-14 million people from even getting an interview. The New Republic reports that those with criminal backgrounds are considerably less likely to get callbacks for job interviews, and those odds are even slimmer for blacks.
Despite the fact that we live in a country that abides by the rules of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this box is effectively used as a way to screen and eliminate ex-prisoners from the application process.
The box causes issues bigger than just upholding the existing roadblock. It discourages the newly released from continuing their job search. Without legitimate ways to make money, this system almost forces them back into a life a crime—not because criminals will always be criminals but because our criminal justice system won’t allow them to become anything else.
Furthermore, checking that box forces them to relive their crime and their punishment over and over when they’re ready to move forward. And even one step beyond this, their criminal history is far more accessible than it once was, meaning there’s even more detailed information out there to block them from securing employment.
The Philadelphia Tribune’s Tracie Johnson and Jarrett Drake write, “Unlike a couple of decades ago when a landlord or an employer would have to go to a courthouse and pull a file to learn about an arrest record, today this information lives online, and in Pennsylvania, is even sold to commercial background check companies.”
Human resource departments argue that knowing this information is helpful. They want to reduce their liability, should this ex-criminal commit any kind of crime or violent act on company grounds. And they want to uphold their responsibility to provide a safe work environment. But ultimately, this isn’t about the work environment; it’s a permissible way to discriminate.
An estimated 93% of employers inquire about criminal records early in the application process. The effect of this doesn’t safeguard the workplace from dangerous criminals. It stops ex-criminals from making their societal contributions. A 2014 Arizona State University study found that men with criminal records were more likely to receive negative responses from potential employers, and black and Hispanic men were less likely to receive positive responses than their white counterparts.
In response, we’ve seen the rise of “Ban the Box” policies, which direct companies to remove this question from job applications. A total of 150 counties and cities, across 30 states, have adopted this practice to give ex-criminals a fair shot. Developments are still fairly recent, so it remains to be seen just how beneficial this will be. But it’s a start.
People living with criminal records have to get creative about their job prospects once they encounter these roadblocks. Quite often, they turn to career fields that require specialized skills and occupational licenses. From acupuncturists and barbers to crane operators and insurance agents, they must secure state-sanctioned licenses to start working. Satisfying the requirements for these licenses is no obstacle, but the actual process of receiving the license is.
This is due to two factors—many states have laws on the books that bar ex-criminals from applying and the independent agencies that provide their licenses often deny their applications.
“Sometimes these policies are well-intentioned, but in practice, they usually do far more harm than good,” writes Washington Examiner’s David Barnes. As an example, he shares that Illinois bans ex-criminals from 118 occupational license categories and 28 states are allowed to reject candidates for any license based on their criminal history.
In the states where people are denied, there are higher recidivism rates, which means taxpayers are funding upwards of $30,000 per prisoner—all because the states are perpetuating the stigma.
Not to mention, on top of the low odds of receiving an occupational license, the application process is lengthy and costly. The latter issue can often serve as a barrier for people acclimating to post-prison life.
The Digital Divide
Otis Johnson’s release could have gone differently if he’d had access to the web while he was in prison. In modern times, we view Internet access as a basic human right. But once this access was proposed for prisoners, critics vehemently opposed it. The problem with the lack of access is the divide it creates. The world beyond prison is rapidly changing, but the prisons aren’t preparing prisoners to succeed in that world.
“Emails now rapidly replace letters and very few people even consider letter writing anymore,” writes Gary, a prisoner who corresponded with The Conversation’s Dr. Victoria Knight. “I have been in the prison system for six years so far with another 16 to go. I am in a position where I can watch as everything changes. Some of us even find those people you grew up with or once were so close to, forget you’re there because you’re no longer around digitally.”
This problem is bigger than just losing contact with friends and family. Internet use is a necessity to connect to news and job opportunities. It’s a skill that’s required in most jobs. Without access, these prisoners will be far behind the power curve once they’re released. For the jobs they actually have a shot at, they’ll be severely under-skilled. And, they’ll have difficulty conducting personal business like paying bills, signing up for medical care, and researching available jobs.
The Future of Work
Everything described here—the stigma, the box, the occupational license block, the digital divide—works to keep people with criminal records unemployed. The most important factor in life after prison is finding a job. This helps ex-criminals generate income, boost self-confidence, and establish a new life. This is the first mandatory step toward avoiding recidivism. If we want them to have a fair shot, we have to start removing obstacles from their paths.
It seems skilled labor and factory employers are opening their minds and slowly reducing their resistance to hiring people with criminal records. Bloomberg recently highlighted the story of Shea Rochester. He went to jail for one month for assault. The charge was later dropped. Yet still, he faced the challenges that many with criminal records encounter. He was recently offered two jobs and accepted a factory position making $14.48 an hour. He makes shortening and cooking oil.
This Georgia factory opened itself to hiring someone with a criminal background, a move that bucks the trend and offers a glimmer of hope for the future. If this factory can repeat this move with several other employees, and then other companies can follow their lead, we can open the door to change. If there are legitimate and plentiful job prospects for people with criminal records, they’ll have a chance to let their skills do the talking.
Change won’t happen tomorrow, but slowly, life after prison is starting to look a little brighter.