The one question that keeps ex-offenders unemployed
The following post originally appeared on NPR, and was written by Pam Fessler. It’s original title is, “How Banning One Question Could Help Ex-Offenders Land a Job.”
By: Pam Fessler
Washington, D.C., is expected to join four states and several cities soon in prohibiting companies from asking job applicants — up front — if they have a criminal record.
It’s part of a growing movement called Ban the Box, a reference to that box on a job application form that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
Advocates for the laws say having to check the box prevents many ex-offenders from getting a fair shot at a job.
Chearie Phelps-El says it happened to her. The Washington resident was released from prison about a year ago after serving five years for felony assault for fighting with two other women.
It was her second conviction for assault. But at age 51, Phelps-El says she was determined to get her life in order, and has applied for numerous jobs at local hotels, sports clubs and hair salons.
“But none of ’em called me back,” she says. “That’s the only thing I can think of is the box.”
Phelps-El says that’s ironic, because in prison she received lots of training on how to re-enter society and become a productive, law-abiding citizen. She took classes on how to do her resume and apply for jobs, among other things. And now it seems like a waste.
“Just ban the box. Give us a chance to go in, have an interview, sell ourselves, let the person know who we are,” she says, adding that employers are missing out on a lot of good workers.
In Washington, D.C., an estimated 1 in 10 residents has a criminal record. Nationally, about 70 million people in the U.S. have been arrested or convicted of a crime.
Sherman Justice says he also had to struggle when he got out of prison two years ago after serving time for robbery and drug trafficking.
“It was hard for me. I didn’t just get a job off top when I first got out,” he says. “I almost hung around the wrong people again. And I made a conscious decision, like, this is not what I want to do.”
Eventually, the 27-year-old landed a job with a Washington advocacy group, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Sherman Justice says he struggled when he got out of prison after serving time for robbery and drug trafficking.
“About 50 percent of returning citizens do re-enter the criminal justice system,” says Ari Weisbard, deputy director of the D.C. Employment Justice Center. “Anything that we can do to lower that is going to both be better for overall costs and lowering the costs of imprisoning all of these people, and, of course, better for the victims of those crimes.”
And he says employment has been shown to be one of the best ways to reduce recidivism.
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