Smart on crime

11/10/2012

Felony convictions have, in effect, become lifetime sentences for many ex-offenders and ex-prisoners who face daunting obstacles finding jobs, housing, and other services.

Background checks in the information age have become routine, even for jobs paying little more than minimum wage. Ex-offenders facing the inevitable question on job applications about past criminal records are practically forced to lie or face almost certain rejection.

It matters to all of us. When ex-offenders can’t find legal ways to support themselves and their families, the lure of crime can overwhelm the best of intentions. Recidivism means more crime victims and more prison time — at a cost to taxpayers of about $35,000 a year for each inmate.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued enforcement guidelines that should help, stating that people cannot be denied employment based solely on criminal histories.

The guidelines support the prisoner re-entry initiatives and goals of states such as Ohio and Michigan, which have made significant investments to ensure that people released from prison get the help they need.

But private employers, who make most of the hiring decisions, may play an even more important role. The EEOC guidelines do not ban background checks but the agency sensibly suggests that employers consider how long ago the crime was committed, the nature of the offense, and whether it is relevant to the job. The agency also recommends giving ex-offenders a chance to explain their convictions and what they’ve done to move their lives forward.

Too often, criminal records of any kind have become blanket barriers to getting a job or keeping one. Given the EEOC guidelines, such discrimination can now invite a lawsuit.

Hundreds of thousands of people leave U.S. prisons each year, and millions more have felonies on their record. Successfully returning them to society can’t happen unless more employers are willing to give them a second chance. New EEOC guidelines should encourage them.