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Will These Latest Prison Reforms Help Ex-Inmates Get Jobs?

Recent reforms will ensure ex-prisoners can apply for jobs, but they’ll still have to overcome significant stigma to actually land one.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The Department of Justice announced last week a bundle of prison reforms aimed at easing the transition for ex-prisoners back into the outside world. The measures include the creation of a school district within the federal prison network, reforming halfway houses, and providing funds to ensure that every former inmate is issued a state ID upon re-entering society at large.

If that last reform seems surprising, it shouldn’t be: Most people leaving prisons don’t have state identification, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, as IDs often expire or are lost during incarceration. This lack of identification makes it hard, sometimes impossible, for former prisoners to access social services, housing, and apply for employment — all factors proven to reduce rates of recidivism.

Overall, released prisoners have about a 50 percent chance of winding up back behind bars within three years, according to Department of Corrections data, and research shows that employment is the single most important factor for reducing recidivism. Just 30 days of employment drops the recidivism rate to 20 percent, according to the National Employment Law Project; after a year of work it lowers to 16 percent.

It’s hard enough for convicts to get jobs once they get out, even without the added barrier of no official identification. A New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that men with criminal records accounted for more than one-third of all non-working men ages 25 to 54. And ex-prisoners’ poor job prospects harm us all: One study found it amounted to a loss of about $78 to $87 billion to the national gross domestic product in 2014.

Pacific Standard spoke with Nayantara Mehta, a senior staff attorney with the NELP, about what these reforms mean for ex-prisoners’ employment opportunities, and what else can be done to combat the biases within our criminal justice system.

According to the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Prisons should cover the ID costs so inmates have IDs before they move from prisons to halfway houses. Why is it so important that the cost of identification for exiting prisoners is covered?

Lack of access to state identification is a major barrier to people re-entering society, and any step that the government can take to make it easier for people to access to ID to get back on their feet faster benefits them, but it also benefits society in general. I think these recommendations are defensible and encouraging from a public safety, cost saving, morality standpoint. Whatever helps people get on their feet faster is better for all of us.

It reduces the burden on the person coming out and having to navigate so many different things. This is one less thing for them to have to do. They can re-enter the world equipped with the documentation they need.

What is still missing, in terms of ensuring that former inmates have a real shot at employment after release?

One of the major issues we work on is fair chance hiring policies, which include a “ban the box” provision. A fair chance hiring approach means that the employer takes off the question from the initial application about “Have you been convicted of a crime?” That’s an important step, but we don’t think that’s enough to reduce the stigma of a record on somebody’s jobs prospects. So there’s kind of a whole framework around how employers can actually consider a record in the context of the person’s life and qualifications.

The whole point is to help employers be able to evaluate applicants who happen to have criminal records as people, not just somebody with a record. Several jurisdictions have passed state or local laws that provide guidance to employers about how to consider records and when, in the process, they can be asked [about those records]. The federal government has instructed federal agencies to implement these fair-hiring policies. We’d like to see them extended to federal contractors. You need to have the ID to even apply, but then once you apply these fair chance hiring policies ideally make it a little easier to get your foot in the door.

Is there evidence that these fair chance hiring policies reduce stigma?

A research summary [from the NELP shows] that when the applicant has a chance to let themselves be known as a person, before their record comes into consideration, then the applicant has a much better chance of actually getting the job. From a legal standpoint, we recommend that the inquiry into whether somebody has a criminal record not come until the employer has made a contingent offer of employment, meaning “we want to offer you this job pending a background check.” And the reason for that is the employer clearly wants that person for the job, they’ve decided they’re the most qualified person regardless of record, which means the employer is invested in the person, which is great. And it also means if the employer decided to rescind the offer, it’s pretty clear why, that it’s because of the record.

Is it illegal for employers to discriminate for people for having a criminal record?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency, issued guidelines in 2012 for employers that helps them avoid discriminating against job applicants. So it’s not discrimination per se to say “I won’t hire somebody with a record,” though the EEOC strongly recommends against having blanket bans, because they can be discriminatory. The reason is because the criminal justice system — the arrests and conviction rates — are so much higher for African Americans and Latinos as compared to whites in the population. So using a criminal record in employment decisions very often will have a discriminatory impact on black and Latino populations, because of their over-representation in the criminal justice system.

The EEOC has provided some really helpful guidance for employers and provided that framework that I was talking about, that fair chance hiring framework, which says here’s what you should consider when you look at somebody’s record: How long ago was it, what have they done since then, and what was the conviction actually for? [Employers should] not just have a knee-jerk reaction, because very often the conviction is for something that’s completely unrelated to the job.

What does the impending change in administration mean for the progress made toward criminal justice reform so far?

I hope that the next administration, the next Department of Justice, will see these proposed changes as common sense as we think they are, and that we all have similar goals in reducing the prison population and helping people get back on their feet faster. We really hope that these proposals are here to stay. There’s always concern when there’s a change in administration, especially when it’s a change in party and orientation toward an issue.

But I feel like, on criminal justice issues in general, there has been a bipartisan consensus that’s been forged over the last several years, which is frankly missing in a lot of different areas. There’s general agreement that the system of incarceration we have right now is not good for our country, and it’s not good for communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.