The perils job seekers with backgrounds confront
by Nicole James Scott, NDG Contributing Writer
According to a review in March 2013 by the University of Texas School of Law on current practices and recommendations for reform in the state of Texas close to 4.7 million men and women have a criminal background. The review goes on to write Texas law enforcement makes more than 1 million arrests annually. What are the long-term implications of being touched by the criminal justice system? How does it change the trajectory of one’s life? How should we as a society respond to those who have been arrested, convicted or incarcerated?
On January 22, 2010 at a town hall meeting in Elyria, Ohio, responding to a question posed by a young man in the audience about his criminal background President Obama said the following:
“Now, I don’t blame employers obviously for being nervous about hiring somebody who has a record. It’s natural if they’ve got a lot of applicants for every single job that that’s a question that they’d have in their minds. On the other hand, I think one of the great things about America is we give people second chances.”
The idea of redemption or forgiveness is definitely a belief that American society enjoys touting, however the numbers as well as those who have been touched by the criminal justice system speak a different tune. S.H., who didn’t want to publish her full name out of fear of backlash, says since 2008 as a result of two felony charges that were dismissed, it has been nearly impossible for her to secure gainful employment. Although she leaves an indelible impression in her interviews employers are less than willing to overlook her criminal record.
Speaking on one of her job seeking experiences S.H. said, “They loved me. I did very well. I passed all of my interviews. The paperwork got to the lawyer and I was shut down.” They don’t ask her to explain the charges neither do they consider the fact she was never convicted.
As a result of her inability to secure employment S.H. turned to her experience as a nail technician. She began hosting local spa parties at doctors’ offices and wherever she could as a means of generating income. This was her sole source of revenue for almost ten years until she was fortunate to find employment through the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) due to her financial hardship.
Through AARP S.H. was able to work at a number of companies on a temporary basis, however when she sought to become a permanent employee she ran into the same barriers, her background. As a result AARP referred her to Victor Pratt and his company Pratt and Associates Consulting, a job resource firm that aids, teaches and guides individuals with criminal backgrounds on finding receptive employers and reentering the workforce.
It is an invaluable service that Pratt has been providing for almost six years to not only those residing in the Dallas-Forth Worth area but Austin and Houston as well since he resigned from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). It was his experience at TWC, witnessing the consistent futility of its one size fits all system and seeing so many young African-American women and men “fall through the cracks” that gave birth to Pratt’s vision.
“I took a leap of faith,” referring to his resigning to start his firm Pratt and Associates, “and I’ve been blessed it paid off.”
One of the things that make Pratt and Associates so effective, unlike its non-profit counterparts, is its source of funding comes directly from the state comptroller. Pratt is a contractor for the state of Texas, a sole proprietor which means he is not subject to many of the restrictions and confines to whom he provides help. According to Pratt most, if not all, of the organizations, including the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative (TORI) founded by Bishop T.D. Jakes do very little at assisting those who need it most, i.e. violent offenders or sex related offenders.
Returning to society after being incarcerated can be an intimidating feat if one does not have the necessary support base, resources and/or skills, which is often the case. According to a research study conducted by the Urban Institute 40 percent of state and federal inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED, almost a third have a physical or mental impediment and more than half are former drug users. Add to that many are legally barred from certain occupations.
This doesn’t exactly make for an ideal job candidate and can often lead to recidivism. The Urban Institute study concluded: Former prisoners who are able to secure a job, ideally at higher than minimum wage, by two months out are more likely to successfully avoid recidivism the first 8 to 12 months after release
Once in the community, 48 percent of respondents wanted but were commonly because they were unaware of program availability. Respondents who held a job while in prison and those who participated in job-training programs while incarcerated had better employment outcomes after release. Most respondents relied on family and friends for income after release, more so than legal employment
Although the study showed a high percentage of ex prisoners, 65 percent, finding employment upon release, many of these jobs were low wage and/or menial positions. For a person trying to support not only themselves but also a family this can be extremely trying. Such was the case with Ed K. who was sentenced to two months in the state of Illinois for unlawful possession of a firearm. The permit for the gun, something he kept on him for safety, had expired which is why he volunteered the firearm to police when he was approached.
“You can get shot in Chicago for almost nothing”, he said. Ed didn’t want to provide the police with any reason to use deadly force.
Prior to his conviction Ed worked for the Department of Veteran Affairs. He was an active member of his community, however after his month long incarceration in 2009 he was hard pressed to find employment. Subsequently, he relocated to Dallas hoping to make a clean start, however he has continued to face his share of obstacles. Like many ex offenders Ed secured employment through a personnel agency.
Unfortunately he found himself being over worked and under paid. “I was making $9 an hour and performing managerial tasks.”
This can also be a challenge those with criminal backgrounds find themselves encountering. Their vulnerability makes them easy targets of exploitation by employers who know they don’t have many options in an already over saturated job market and rocky economy to begin with. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has unsuccessfully challenged the blanket use of criminal background checks by employers claiming it is a violation of Title VII. Title VII prohibits both intentional discrimination and disparate-impact discrimination.
According to the EEOC the use of criminal background checks in the hiring process can have a disparate impact on African-Americans. The court however, did not feel the EEOC provided sufficient evidence to make its case.
The State Attorneys General responded to the EEOC’s lawsuits claiming they were “gross federal overreaching”. They went on to state that adding discretionary factors to criminal background screening creates more opportunity for race discrimination in the process than a no discretionary bright-line rule. Finally, they accused the EEOC of attempting to create a new protected category, convicted criminals.
As of September 2013 Texas legislature went into effect protecting employers against legal recourse for hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds. According to the law a “cause of action may not be brought against an employer, general contractor, premises owner, or other third party solely for negligently hiring or failing to adequately supervise an employee, based on evidence that the employee has been convicted of an offense.”
So the predominant question remains what kind of society do we wish to move forward as? One that genuinely allows those who have been charged or convicted with a crime the opportunity to reintegrate into society and better themselves or not? It is a very relevant question considering most if not all families have some member who has been touched by the criminal justice system.