28 Jul, 2011

Laws Keep Ex-Offenders from Finding Work, Experts Say

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this week heard from legal experts that people with arrest and conviction records face legal barriers when seeking employment, and that this has an  overall economic and social impact on society.

“Our criminal justice system is broken,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a professor of law, and a former chair of the Criminal Justice Section, of the American Bar Association.”We incarcerate people for far too long, and the consequences of incarceration are far too harsh on the lives of these people.”

The United States has the highest rates of incarceration worldwide. Demographically, the overall prison population is made up mostly of men, youth and minorities. Most have a limited education or lack employment.  Around 92 million people in the United States have criminal justice histories, and taxpayers spend more than $56 billion per year on incarceration.

“We have more people with criminal justice histories than any other country. It’s not like winning the World Cup,” Saltzburg said.

Many laws prevent people with criminal histories from being eligible for some public assistance, jobs and licenses – increasing the likelihood of their returning to prison.

“If we don’t worry about it, we’re not only treating these people unfairly,” Saltzburg said. “We’re treating the community unfairly because people don’t have the opportunity to provide for themselves or take their rightful place after they have paid their dues.”

If a person is convicted of a crime at 18 and is automatically disqualified for a barber’s license, they can still be disqualified thirty or forty years later.

“Most jurisdictions have no mechanism for getting the disqualification removed,” he said. “You can seek a pardon or a certificate of rehabilitation in some states like New York, but they are difficult to get, complicated, sometimes expensive to figure out how you’re going to do it, and largely ineffective.”

These types of laws are often referred to as the collateral consequences of conviction. The ABA uncovered more than 38,000 statutes that contain collateral consequences, said Saltzburg, who worked on the ABA Collateral Consequences of Conviction Project.

The project will create a user-friendly national database that will allow anyone to pull data on employment consequences.

The most current data shows that, while there are many barriers people face as a result of their records, 84 percent of those are job-related, Saltzburg said.

Ex-offenders who are able to find employment are likely to have an 11 percent reduction in wages. By the age of 48, he can expect to have earned $179,000 less than if he never was incarcerated, Saltzburg said.

“This collateral consequence project, in large part, is to educate us all on just what we’ve done in disqualifying [ex-offenders] and disabling them from getting jobs and licenses,” Saltzburg said.

Even prosecutors are invested in the re-entry, helping ex-offenders integrate into society.

“You want to know why? It’s because it’s all about public safety,” Saltzburg said. “If you give people an opportunity to work and to educate and improve themselves, you reduce crime, the number of victims and improve public safety. It’s a win-win all around.”

Prisons often invest in job training for inmates to equip them with employment for reentry. However, these laws often prevent them from using these newly acquired skills.

“It makes no sense to train them in prison and then disqualify them from the very jobs that you’ve trained them for,” Saltzburg said. “That’s just bad public policy, a waste of taxpayers’ money and a poor use of public resources. Yet that’s what we do.”

Saltzburg is a currently a professor at the George Washington University Law School.

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