Individuals, families and society pay the price when people can’t enter or re-enter the workforce because of the stigma associated with a past criminal history. Maintaining meaningful employment is one of the primary predictors of whether a person leaving the criminal justice system will successfully reintegrate into society or be recycled back into the prison system, studies show.
Unfortunately, more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed one year after being released. Those who find jobs take home 40 percent less pay annually than those who have not been incarcerated. In fact, only one in four previously incarcerated individuals will ever rise above the bottom 20 percent of income earners. Because of these unfavorable circumstances, recidivism is likely for those who never get a “second chance.” In fact, nearly two-thirds of previously incarcerated people return to prison within three years after release. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, Colorado ranks 3rd for highest recidivism rate in the United States at 52.5 percent with the average time between release and re-arrest at approximately eight months. Compounding the problem, racial prejudice among employers remains a steadfast reality. While criminal records already reduce an applicant’s likelihood of being hired by nearly 50 percent, research has found that a black man without a record is less likely to be hired than a white man with a conviction by a margin of 3 percent.
Simply put, these factors hurt communities by perpetuating the cycle of homelessness, poverty and crime. Fortunately, a bipartisan movement is gaining support throughout the country to remove many of the barriers that keep individuals with criminal records from becoming productive and contributing members of their communities. Proposals intended to improve the prospects for previously incarcerated people are being adopted into law with bipartisan support and opposition from businesses is declining. Koch Industries, the company owned by conservative donors Charles and David Koch, announced in April that it will no longer ask whether job applicants have committed a crime – a longstanding barrier that hampers the ability of prospective employees with criminal records to be considered for potentially life-changing job opportunities.
To spark discussion about policies that will help Coloradans with criminal records join the job market, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy looked at what other states are doing about the problem. CCLP recently produced a report entitled “Outside the Box: An Approach to Promoting and Increasing Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records.” This eight-page briefing examines the challenges that recently incarcerated individuals face in the job market and analyzes policies that may help them secure job opportunities.
Nationwide, options include:
- Certificates of Rehabilitation/Certificates of Good Conduct — Some states provide documents that vouch for an offender’s personal rehabilitation and successful reentry. Such certificates are intended to alleviate employers’ fears about hiring people with criminal records.
- Record sealing – Laws that permit sealing or expunging of criminal records may differ widely from state to state. In general, records may be sealed or expunged after parole conditions are met, or by a court after a specified number of years of good behavior. Once a criminal record is sealed or expunged, applicants have no obligation to acknowledge their criminal record to a prospective employer (although the record remains available to law enforcement agencies). A Connecticut law allows an offender to apply for expungement of a misdemeanor three years after conviction and expungment of a felony ten years after conviction.
- Provisional pardons — In Connecticut, people with criminal records may apply for a provisional pardon. Pardon applications are considered by the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles. While provisional pardons do not erase one’s conviction from his or her record, they prohibit employers from denying employment to an applicant based solely on a conviction for which the applicant received a provisional pardon. People with criminal records can apply for a provisional pardon at any time after they are sentenced – even when they are still on probation or parole.
- Ban the Box policies – In short, Ban the Box laws prohibit employers from asking applicants if they have been convicted of a crime on job-application forms. Of the aforementioned policy solutions, Ban the Box policies are gaining the most momentum. In fact, 17 states (including Colorado) have some sort of Ban the Box law on the books. Of those, six states – Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have removed the criminal history question on job applications for private employers. Approved in 2012, Colorado’s Ban the Box law prohibits most state departments from inquiring about criminal history until after the applicant has been selected as a finalist or has been given a conditional offer of employment. In addition to statewide Ban the Box laws, several municipalities enforce Ban the Box ordinances within city limits.
While all options intended to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal records warrant consideration, it is imperative that Colorado takes action to improve circumstances for those leaving the prison system. We consider our just-released report a primer toward improving employment prospects for people with criminal records – initiating a conversation that we intend to take to the criminal justice population, business leaders, policymakers and other Colorado stakeholders in the months to come.
– Bob Mook