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A growing number of states are opting to 'ban the box' that asks about criminal records on job applications. And with evidence that criminal records could be driving people into poverty, a new proposal to seal past offenses is now on the table. The NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports from Philadelphia.
Every afternoon, at his dining room table, 36-year-old Ronald Lewis does his homework.
By day, he's a student — learning to fix heating and air conditioning systems, and he looks after his three kids. He also works the night shift, running high pressure boilers at a chemical plant here in his hometown, Philadelphia.
I'm a father. I'm a hard worker. I'm very ambitious.
He's also got a criminal record.
A decade ago, Lewis had two major run-ins with the law that he says have interfered with his job prospects ever since.
In August 2004, he was picked up during a drug arrest alongside his brother. Lewis was carrying a 9 millimeter handgun. Days later he was nabbed for stealing a pocketbook from a department store.
So what was that like — and what happened at that stage after they arrested you?
It was life changing. But it wasn't a good feeling. It wasn't a good feeling, because you felt like you disappointed your family, and you disappointed your mother, which is the most important person in my life.
On the suggestion of his lawyer, Lewis took a deal. For both cases, he pled guilty to a total of three misdemeanors and was sentenced to five years' probation. No jail time.
At that time, were you worried at all about how this might impact your future?
No. Because the lawyer had told me, 'It's only a misdemeanor. It's never gonna hurt you. Don't even worry about it.' So no, I really didn't think that much into it at that point.
A short time later, Lewis began looking for new work. He was overjoyed when he got a tentative job offer from a building company.
I worked there for about a month, was honest with them. Told them, you know, what was on my record. They still hired me. We're workin'. So I work there about a month. They called me in the office and said, 'Your record came back. We gotta let you go.'
And that was it? Even though you had disclosed everything? You were never dishonest in the hiring process?
Never dishonest. Never. They looked so scared of me — it was a shame.
What do you mean?
When they — we gotta get you out of here. We've gotta get you off the premises.
Lewis says that scenario played out over and over again — later on, he had two offers that were then revoked. He had promising phone calls with another company that went nowhere. He says the only explanation he received: the existence of crimes in his past. Four of those companies declined to discuss Lewis' case with us.
There are people who are going to watch this, and they're going to say, 'You know what? You weren't a kid. You were 25. You were an adult. You knew what you were doing. And that this is a consequence — this is a consequence of your actions.'
If you show me one person that hasn't made a mistake, then I won't apply nowhere else.
Nine in ten companies in the US conduct background checks, and with rap sheets widely available online, advocates say people with criminal backgrounds — sometimes just an arrest record, no conviction — are being blocked from employment. They say it's driving a growing number of people into poverty. And that Ronald Lewis' case is hardly unique.
SHARON DIETRICH, COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICES OF PHILADELPHIA:
It's very common. We see clients come in with variations of his story on a daily basis.
Sharon Dietrich is now Ronald Lewis' lawyer — she didn't represent him in the original criminal cases. She's also the litigation director at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She's been there for nearly thirty years.
We serve the low-income community of Philadelphia, basically unemployed and low-wage workers in Philadelphia. And it's the single most common reason people come to us for help is because they have a criminal record that has been keeping them from getting a job.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal, using data from the University of South Carolina, reported that Americans with a criminal conviction by age 23 have higher unemployment rates, make less money, and are twice as likely to end up in poverty as their peers.
REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:
The reality is that with the rise of technology and really with the proliferation of background checks in this nation in really every walk of life from employment to housing, a criminal record now carries often lifelong barriers to basic building blocks of economic security.
Rebecca Vallas is a lawyer and poverty expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. She and Sharon Dietrich, Ronald Lewis' lawyer, published a report last year linking poverty and criminal backgrounds, especially among black men.
And so it's really an incredibly pervasive problem that impacts whole segments of our community. But it — this issue also really disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Employers say they aren't just shutting out everyone with a criminal past — they're being careful and complying with guidelines from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission meant to give people second chances.
That's according to Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 350-thousand small businesses.
A cynical part of me says, 'Hey, if I sat down and, boy, it looks like someone's got a criminal record and then I've got another candidate who doesn't, I'm gonna go with the guy who doesn't have the criminal record,' right?
BETH MILITO, NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES:
Maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on the nature of the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidance in April of 2012. And it reiterates that where at all possible it's good for a business to consider three factors– the nature of the crime, the time that's elapsed since the crime and the nature of the job. And when at all possible to make an individualized assessment. And I think many employers will do that.
A hundred cities — including Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Charlotte, and Orlando — along with 18 states now prohibit employers from asking job applicants to check a box admitting if they have a criminal record. Eleven state bans apply only to government agencies. Seven states also prohibit private employers from asking about convictions.
But Vallas and Dietrich's report for the Center for American Progress wants to go a step further — and seal low-level, nonviolent criminal offenses that took place more than ten years ago.
According to Rebecca Vallas, the data show that after a decade, nonviolent offenders are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else — so their records shouldn't be part of the hiring process at all.
We really have policies in place that treat a person as a criminal long– after they really pose any significant risk of ever re-offending. And it really doesn't make much sense to be shutting someone out of opportunities to access — a job for instance — because of misconceptions about who that person might be and the risk that they might pose to public safety.
But Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses says employers face major risks, and even potential negligent hiring lawsuits, if a past offender commits a crime on the job. And for small business owners especially, their reputations could be on the line.
Hiring decisions are challenging. And they need this information. They can't turn a blind eye. Too much is at risk. They can't turn a blind eye to criminal history. It'd be foolish to. You know, there's people, property at stake.
Someone might be watching this and they say, 'You know what? I wouldn't trust you at my business.' How do you defend yourself to that charge?"
What I say to them is it was 2004, and I'm pretty sure if you made a mistake in 2004, you don't know what your mistake was. But mine is documented. So you know what my mistake is. And look at the positive things I've done since 2004. So if you're gonna hang your hat on just 2004, then you probably aren't the person I wanna work for anyway.
Do you think an employer doesn't have the right to know what happened in your past?
Employers should know — should know who they're hiring. It's fair. You– you should know. But you should also remember that these are lives we're — these are people's lives we're talking about. It's like if almost double jeopardy. Just look at it like this.
I serve my — I did my probation. No violations. Model citizen. I go to school and try to better myself, and I'm — it's like every time I apply for a job, I feel like I'm committing a crime all over again.
This spring, Lewis finished his training course and is now looking for work. He's submitted two pardon applications to Pennsylvania to clear his record — and while both have been rejected, he plans on re-submitting them in the near future.
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