Unemployment. One could argue that no single word best defines the current political and economic discourse. With almost one in ten Americans unemployed, it is easy to see why. The problem for policymakers looking for solutions, however, is that unemployment is not monolithic. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg acknowledged this last week when he announced an unprecedented effort to reduce the disparities that challenge Black and Latino males by, in part, addressing the barriers faced by jobseekers with criminal convictions.
According to the U.S. Office of Justice Assistance, more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. When criminal records are thrown into the search by these men for legitimate work, the consequences are often disastrous. Sometimes they are disqualified from certain positions because of the nature of their conviction--this is understandable. But too often, biased hiring managers take these applicants right out of the hiring pool without consideration, despite the fact that they are otherwise qualified. It is no wonder that, according to Devah Pager, author of "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration", within a year after release up to 75 percent of ex-convicts remain unemployed.
It is in the best interest the economy and public safety to make sure that once people with convictions return to the community, they stay in the community and out of prison. As Mayor Bloomberg powerfully said in last week's address, a job is the single best way to do this. To help more formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs, we must reduce counterproductive barriers to legitimate employment. That's why, in announcing the launch of his comprehensive strategy to promote opportunity for Black and Latino males, including a record-breaking $127 million funding commitment, the Mayor ordered City agencies to prohibit questions about criminal conviction history from the first stage of the hiring process.
After their initial job interview, applicants will be asked to disclose their criminal history. It will be evaluated by staff in light of the job for which the candidate is being considered. There are no guarantees, of course, but thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's policy, individuals who would otherwise be deterred from applying will now be able to get their foot in the door. Because protecting public safety and vulnerable populations is always a concern, the new policy preserves the policy that all City employees must undergo background checks as a condition of their employment. This new policy will give job applicants who may have a criminal conviction a chance to fairly compete for many civilian City positions for which they are otherwise qualified.
This policy, following the lead of so-called "Ban the Box" efforts in cities and states including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Florida, under the leadership of elected leaders whose affiliations span the political and ideological spectrum from former Governor Jeb Bush to Mayor Michael Nutter, is common sense. Jobseekers should have an opportunity to fairly compete for jobs where public safety is not compromised by their hire and where their criminal record has no relationship to the duties of the position; employers should have the right to choose the most qualified candidates. It's a win-win.
If Washington wants to have a real conversation about how to address unemployment, they would be wise to look to cities like New York where government is doing what it can to reduce the barriers faced by jobseekers that desperately want to turn the page to the next chapter in their lives.