Employers should rethink how to weigh criminal past

One of my workshops, “Choose to Change,” encourages participants to figure out why they make bad financial choices.

We discuss the decisions that have led them to their current situation. In the case of a recent session, the participants were all inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

During the presentation, one woman tearfully described how she sold drugs so she could buy brand-name clothes, shoes and other items for herself and her children. She was trying to make up for what she didn’t have as a child.

“Now look at me,” she said. “I’m in prison, wearing cheap flip-flops, and I don’t have my freedom and any of the stuff I bought.”

I was moved by how forthcoming the women were. Many had similar stories: They committed crimes to support a lifestyle they couldn’t afford but thought they were entitled to. Their testimonies weren’t about offering excuses. They owned up to their mistakes and the damage they had done. They were eager to learn strategies to make better choices.

I regularly volunteer to conduct personal finance workshops for inmates. Most of my sessions are scheduled to help soon-to-be-released inmates. I try to prepare them for the financial pressures they will face. But it’s hard counseling them on how to budget when you know, and they know, they’ll face tough barriers to even finding a job.

That’s why I’m particularly interested in the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against BMW and Dollar General, accusing them of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by using criminal justice history information that had a disparate impact on black applicants.

EEOC’s case against BMW centers on employees who had worked for UTi Integrated Logistics Inc., which provided services to a BMW facility in South Carolina. UTi limits its criminal background checks to convictions within the previous seven years, according to EEOC. However, BMW’s policy doesn’t have a time limit.

A new contractor took over from UTi and required employees to reapply for their positions. Workers who had criminal convictions were fired, despite the fact that many had worked at the BMW facility for years. One woman’s ouster was based on a 1990 misdemeanor conviction for simple assault in which she paid a $137 fine, according to the EEOC’s lawsuit. She had worked for UTi and prior BMW logistics-services providers for 14 years.

In the complaint against Dollar General, the EEOC says the company withdrew job offers from two black applicants as a result of criminal background checks. But in one case, the EEOC contends, the information was wrong and the other involved a 6-year-old conviction for possession of a controlled substance that the applicant had already disclosed. Depending on the type of conviction, Dollar General might disqualify a job candidate from working for them for 10 years, the EEOC said.

In statements, both BMW and Dollar General deny any wrongdoing.

Employers aren’t prohibited from obtaining or using criminal records, but how they use the information may be discriminatory, said Christine Saah Nazer, a spokesperson for the EEOC. The agency maintains that the criminal conviction policies at BMW and Dollar General disproportionately screened out African-Americans without assessing each case individually, the nature and gravity of the crimes, or the ages of the convictions.

“The EEOC’s position is that an employer’s policy or practice of excluding individuals from employment on the basis of their conviction records has an adverse impact on African-Americans and Hispanics, in light of statistics showing that they are convicted at a rate disproportionately greater than their representation in the population,” Saah Nazer said. “Qualified individuals with criminal records should have an opportunity to compete for employment when their criminal records are not relevant or predictive.”

The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1 in 4 adults has a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check. Last year, the EEOC issued guidelines to employers cautioning about using conviction records that could result in discrimination.

When ex-offenders fill out job applications, many have to check a box indicating they have been convicted of a crime. That checked box has become a brand preventing them from getting jobs or even interviews. I’m an advocate for the growing “Ban the Box” movement, which advocates eliminating from applications questions about criminal convictions.

Employers have a right to check the backgrounds of potential workers to ensure they are hiring competent employees who will not jeopardize the safety of their workers or customers. But having a job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. That woman I met at the workshop and so many others like her have a better chance of redeeming themselves if a checked box doesn’t summarily block them from fairly competing for a job.

When ex-offenders trying to change and become productive citizens can’t find employment, we all lose.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com; @SingletaryM; or www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.

Washington Post Writers Group

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