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Michael Shank, Ph.D. Headshot
Lindsay Schubiner Headshot

DC Council Chair Scuttles Critical Effort to Employ Ex-Offenders

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The greatest legacy of Marion Barry, as city council member of the District of Columbia, could've been his latest ex-offender bill, which was shot down this week by fellow Democrat on the council Phil Mendelson. Chairman Mendelson, using procedural tactics, never allowed the bill to come to a vote. This is a shame. Council member Barry's bill, which mirrored similar bills considered and passed by states and cities all across America, tackles employment-based discrimination facing former offenders and hurting communities of color most. This bill was sorely needed not only in the District, but all across America. It is needed for an estimated 65 million Americans -- or one in four U.S. adults -- who hold an arrest or conviction record that would show up in a routine criminal background check.

Marion Barry was on to something. Even though they may have only committed minor, nonviolent crimes, been denied adequate legal representation or been erroneously convicted, large numbers of Americans are not considered for employment because of their criminal records. Employment discrimination is crippling the local economies of many of the communities hit hardest by the recession and preventing many from providing for their families. Making matters worse, over 90 percent of employers may now be conducting these criminal background checks, according to the National Employment Law Project.

It is critical, then, for ethical and economic reasons, to address this type of discrimination, especially given all the barriers to employment that many people with criminal records face, including limited work experience and educational background. There are several reasons why. Refusing all types of employment to people with criminal records can be illegal, according to civil rights laws. Earlier this year, the Pepsi Company paid over $3 million to resolve a racial discrimination charge based on their criminal background check policy. These practices remain widespread. In the U.S., criminal justice laws are regularly enforced in a racially discriminatory way, with people of color constituting 60 percent of the prison population although white Americans commit crimes at comparable rates.

Most importantly, if America is the land of opportunity, then people -- all people -- must be given a second chance to pursue their dreams after they have served their sentence. Instead, many people continue to be punished for decades after leaving prison, denied employment even when the crime committed bears no rational relationship to the job. A marijuana charge from one's teenage years, for instance, should not be allowed to prevent a single mother from providing for her family. Anecdotes abound in which people have trouble getting jobs simply because of arrest records that did not result in conviction.

Every year, more than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison, and they disproportionately return to low-income communities of color. Discrimination, therefore, has an enormous impact on our national economy. With 28.3 percent of arrests targeting African Americans, more than double their percent of the population, the impact of unequal criminal enforcement hits urban communities of color particularly hard.

In Washington, D.C., three out of four black men are imprisoned at least once in their lives, exacerbating a growing inequality in the District. Unemployment among black Americans remains very high, particularly in urban areas. This keeps unemployment numbers sluggish and ultimately undermines economic growth. Criminal records can reduce the probability of a job offer by nearly 50 percent, and this phenomenon is most severe among African American men. Unless we address the economic situation of urban communities of color, our national economic recovery will be far weaker. For economic reasons alone, we cannot leave behind a significant and growing population of Americans.

If our nation does not provide opportunities for people returning from prison, we will lose out on an enormous amount of labor and will continue to devastate the local economies of many urban areas suffering from very high unemployment rates. The reentry of 650,000 ex-offenders into society each year is equivalent to roughly 60 percent of the annual growth in the labor force. That's substantial. There are other benefits that come with reform on this front. Public safety will also be dramatically improved if we ensure that people with criminal convictions are able to find reliable employment that pays decent wages. We know that employment dramatically reduces recidivism rates.

At the local level, a grassroots "Ban the Box" movement has emerged to eliminate questions about prior criminal convictions on initial employment applications, winning some successes in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Oakland and states including California and Minnesota. At the federal level, we must fund and empower our government -- and specifically the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission -- to prevent employment discrimination and enforce a middle road that protects employers while also promoting U.S. economic growth and public safety. Our economic recovery has the potential to be stronger and steadier, but only if we refuse to leave some communities behind.

Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. Lindsay Schubiner is senior policy advisor for Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Michigan). This op-ed is written in her personal capacity and does not reflect the official position of the office of Rep. Clarke.