The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our criminal justice system is making it really hard for people to find jobs

The Coleman Federal Prison seen through a gate in Coleman, Fla. in June of 1999. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentine, Tom Benitez)

Although the American economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, many people still struggle to find jobs. Politicians blame taxation, trade policies and automation. Some have even singled out the current welfare system.

Often overlooked? The many punitive effects of the criminal justice system.

Nearly 65 million Americans have a criminal record. This black mark carries with it potentially mandatory restrictions on jobs, housing, education and public assistance. As detailed in a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study, the federal government and every state imposes some sort of “collateral consequence” to arrests or convictions.

Some survey data suggest that more than half of released ex-offenders remain unemployed up to a year after their release from custody.

In some jurisdictions, ex-offenders can never hold certain jobs. According to a 2007 article in Criminology and Public Policy, there could be as many as 800 occupations nationwide that automatically disqualify people with felony convictions for life.

Some of these restrictions make sense. Bank teller is probably not the best first job for someone who got out of prison on a bank robbery conviction. Likewise, a serial arsonist probably shouldn’t be a fireman.

Others make no sense at all. In some jurisdictions, a criminal conviction may prevent someone from obtaining a license to cut hair or be a beautician. Sweeney Todd aside, it’s hard to fathom how public safety is enhanced by prohibiting someone from earning a living at a job unrelated to someone’s past crime.

It’s not that certain crimes shouldn’t carry extra burdens, at least for a short time. But any restrictions should be tied directly to public safety or have some clear, offense-related justification. Only in rare instances should they attach for life. The American Bar Association has compiled a searchable database of 40,000 collateral consequences in every jurisdiction in the country that help prevent ex-offenders from getting on with their lives.

Barriers to employment are particularly important in the neighborhoods to which formerly incarcerated people return. Every week, 6,000 people in America return from jail or prison. Because policing tends to be geographically, socio-economically and racially skewed, many who come out of incarceration are likely to return — jobless, indigent and with debts to pay — to neighborhoods that already suffered high unemployment rates before their arrival.

Ex-offenders are also likely to suffer from the informal biases that accompany the stigma of a criminal conviction, making the job hunt nearly impossible. If an employer has a large stack of applications for a low-skilled job, requiring the disclosure of a past conviction can effectively preclude an interview.

Inability to find a job or steady legitimate income can lead to illicit means to self-sufficiency and debt repayment. This, in turn, may lead to higher recidivism rates that land more people back in jail.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. When necessary, those who break the law should be held to account for their actions.

But our current criminal justice system makes it harder for those who have made mistakes to fully atone for their deeds and rejoin the productive segment of society. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration for hundreds of thousands of Americans and their families.

It is simply unfair to demand that ex-offenders redeem themselves while making it increasingly hard for them to do so.

Common sense reforms can make a huge difference. These include opening doors to gainful employment by eliminating senseless legal barriers to jobs and reducing extra burdens such as fines and fees that add to the considerable economic burden of those reentering society.

Beyond the regulatory barriers, some states and the District of Columbia have enacted “ban the box” legislation to discourage discrimination against ex-offenders in the hiring process. Employers can ask about prior convictions only after a tentative job offer. While a conviction may cause the offer to be withdrawn, reformers hope that the relevance or irrelevance of that conviction, rather than the existence of the conviction at all, should be the determining factor.

Failure to reform the criminal justice system unjustly punishes those who have already served their sentences. Regulatory and legal obstacles cause incalculable loss to our economy by keeping well-intentioned ex-offenders out on the street or back in jail instead of back in society and in a job.