April 15, 2015

Getting a Job with a Criminal Record

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In a competitive job environment, having a criminal record might effectively exclude someone from legal employment. For some jobs, it makes sense to exclude people who have committed specific offenses in the past. No one wants their cable installer to be a convicted burglar, their child’s teacher to be a sex offender, or their accountant to have committed forgery.

But for many people who have past offenses, the charges have less to do with their character than the communities in which they live. Check out this clip from Last Week Tonight, which examines how municipal fines like speeding tickets, parking tickets, and loitering charges can cause low-income residents to end up in jail if they can’t pay the mounting fines:


Because some communities are funded by revenue from these fines, there is great incentive to write citations and charge additional fees if people can’t pay the entire amount. Creating a costly financial spiral, low income residents may lose their cars and thus their ability to get to work, and then lose their jobs, making it nearly impossible for them to pay the mounting fees.

As sociologist Issla Kohler-Hossman details, misdemeanor arrests can be detrimental even without conviction, requiring people to appear in court (and possibly miss work) and jump through hoops to get the charges cleared. Perhaps the biggest concern is that these minor charges also mark someone with an arrest record.

And once arrested, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a job. As the Wall Street Journal reported, employers can easily do background checks to see if someone has ever been arrested (even if they were never charged with a crime or if charged not found guilty). The Journal describes how a woman arrested during a peaceful protest later had difficulty getting hired. This might seem like an isolated case, but nearly one in three adults is listed in the FBI’s arrest database. Those that have been arrested—even if not guilty—are less likely to own a home, more likely to have lower incomes, and are less likely to graduate from college.

This may be because people who have lower incomes are more likely to be arrested for offenses committed by people across the economic spectrum. Low-income communities are more likely to experience greater police surveillance and thus their residents are more likely to face charges like drug possession, where use and distribution might take place in more visible areas. (Think of the people you may know who have been in possession of illegal drugs but not been arrested.) More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related offenses, and the “war on drugs” has led to an increase in incarceration over the past three decades.

A recent New York Times article examines how this has impacted the labor market and the economy, including comments by sociologists:

 “Prior to the prison boom, when convictions were restricted to a smaller fraction of the population, it wasn’t great for their rehab potential but it wasn’t having a huge impact,” said Devah Pager, a Harvard professor of sociology. “Now such a large fraction of the population is affected that it has really significant implications, not just for those people, but for the labor market as a whole.”

These policies affect a growing number of people. About 10 percent of nonincarcerated men had felony records in 2010, up from 4 percent in 1980, according to research led by the sociologists Sarah Shannon of the University of Georgia and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota. The numbers are much higher among African-American men: About 25 percent of nonincarcerated black men had been convicted of a felony, up from 9 percent in 1980.

Devah Pager also spoke to Dalton Conley about her research on the stigma of a criminal record when trying to find a job:


We tend to think about getting a job as an individual pursuit, something that impacts that person and their family. But what happens when a significant proportion of a community is unable to get legitimate work, possibly ever?

Local businesses suffer when people have little money to spend, causing local merchants to close or seek out other communities. Networks that are crucial for sharing job opportunities are thin, leading those without criminal records to suffer as well.

Some states are eliminating that box to check on job applications, the one to state whether you have been convicted of a felony. A “ban the box” movement hopes to enable those with the desire to work to have a shot at getting a job.

As I noted above, there are some jobs and some offenses that just don’t match. One job training program for former gang members, Homeboy Industries, operates a bakery, a café, and a silk screening business. At one point the organization experimented with a training program for plumbers, but found that people were wary of having their clients in their homes (although there is now a program to train Homeboy’s clients to install solar panels).

What other ideas might enable people with arrest or conviction records to get legitimate employment?


I have applied to 200 hundred jobs in the last five months and have been denied for all of them because of a conviction for food stamp fraud. In my case, I received food stamp benefits for a time period later determined to be ineligible and they received their money back in less than one year and two months. However, even with my degree in Paralegal, I have been interviewed, offered jobs and disclosed my criminal record, but denied the jobs due to the 2011 charge. It leaves me feeling worthless and makes me feel like giving up. I have sought outside sources and they want me to work at a convenience store for mininum wage. With five children, that will not even begin to cover my expenses. To get on welfare is not an option, but I am just ready to give it all up.

If you have been applying for job then maintain 4 ways:
1.Know your rights.
2.Know which offenses are on your record.
3.Know what employers are allowed to consider.
4.Talk to personal connections.

It's nice to see an organization like Homeboy Industries. More communities should be taking initiative like this to provide those with criminal records a chance to change their lives because it is proven how hard it can be to enter a workforce with a record behind you. The sad thing is that a big majority of society labels people with criminal records accordingly to their charges, when in reality a good majority of people with criminal records would be able to change their pasts and progress forward had they been given a chance to show their progress and motivation to lead a good life.

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