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Paying The Price: Twice

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Do you realize that one of every four adults in America has a police record? Try getting a job with that in your background.

If you are one of this group -- 65 million Americans -- take heart and have hope.

With the U.S. unemployment over nine percent these days nearly everyone knows someone who is out of work or under-employed. It's a tragic and desperate time for millions of Americans.

But there is one sector of the population hit harder than any other -- those Americans who carry the stigma of a past criminal conviction. An almost unbelievable 65 million people - one in every four U.S. adults -- falls into this category. And, in this War on Terror era employers are conducting background checks on new hires like never before. No matter how exemplary a life a person has led since their conviction, their past record will pop up.

Look, no one could fault an employer for thinking twice about hiring someone who has been convicted of murder or child molestation. But, according to the author of a National Employment Law Project study, that's not what we're talking about here. Michele Rodriguez says, "We're not talking primarily about hardened criminals, but your friends, relatives and neighbors who may have shoplifted once or twice, who have DUI's on their record or have drug charges that date back to the 1980's."

Take, as an example, the case of Ted Brown (not his real name) a whiz-bang software engineer that was downsized out of a job last winter. He thought he had landed a prestigious job with a five figure bonus when suddenly the offer was rescinded. Turned out the employer's background check had discovered that during a nasty divorce several years earlier Ted had pleaded guilty to a charge of child endangerment. He had left his son alone in the car on a cool fall day while he quickly sprinted into Starbucks for coffee. Never thinking that the episode would affect his ability to do a job, Ted checked "no" on the application box that asked about arrests and convictions. He compounded his police record with a lie.

Then there's the story of 40 year old Johnny Magee of Dublin, California. Twelve years ago the developmentally disabled Magee was asked by his uncle to pick up a package for him. Unbeknownst to Johnny it contained drugs and even though he had no police record he was convicted of a misdemeanor drug offense. In 2008, Johnny was laid off from his long time landscaping job at the Livermore National Laboratory. Even with his experience, Lowe's Garden Center refused to consider him for a garden assistant's job, citing his police record. In 2009, Johnny's lawyer filed charges with the EEOC against Lowe's citing the Commission's pronouncement that "an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII."

As NELP's Rodriguez says, "People are human, they make mistakes" -- especially in their early years -- and ought not to be discriminated against for the rest of their lives.

I agree it is not fair to the jobseeker and, frankly, I don't think it's fair to society to limit the employment pool at such a crucial economic time. For everyone who pulls from the unemployment coffers the burden shifts to the rest of us -- the working taxpayers.

But how are these 65 million Americans supposed to get a new job if they suddenly become unemployed? A quick glance at the Craigslist employment page reveals insurmountable company policies:

"No Exceptions! No Misdemeanors and/or Felonies of any type ever in background."

"DO NOT APPLY WITH ANY MISDEMEANORS / FELONIES"

"You must not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions on your record. Period."

Last year at least five major federal civil rights lawsuits were filed against some of the country's largest employers such as Accenture, First Transit, Inc. and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company for their blanket policies against hiring anyone with an arrest record. Even the U.S. Census Bureau was sued for refusing to consider "roughly 700,000 people" with criminal records as suitable for temporary Census jobs.

Some of those suits -- and many more filed at the state or local level -- mention the racially discriminatory nature of refusing to consider applicants with a police record since African Americans and Latinos are over-represented in the criminal justice system. These legal actions are sure to have begun to seep into the corporate mindset where bean counters realize how costly litigation can be. Policy shifts are certainly underway.

I'm all about law and order and people doing the time for the crimes they commit. But once time has been served -- especially if it's for a non-violent offense -- we need to welcome these people back into the fold. They need the work and we need them to be working for the betterment of our communities.

And to those who have an arrest record and are looking for a job? Don't be like Ted Brown the software guy and lie about it on your application. Realize that a background check is going to discover your past so be upfront about it. A black mark on your background check might not stop a company from hiring you. But lying most certainly will.