Human Rights

How A New Job Application Form Could Save Hundreds Of Californians From Returning To Prison

The "ban the box" campaign sheds light on the difficulty ex-convicts face finding employment.

Photo Credit: A Jackson

In an attempt to cut down on employment discrimination against felons and reduce recidivism rates, a bill waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D-CA) signature would remove a question on local and state job applications asking applicants about their criminal record.

Checking that box on a job application can often automatically disqualify an applicant who has served time in prison, making it nearly impossible for ex-convicts to find legitimate work. California already removed the questions regarding felony and domestic abuse convictions from most public job applications, putting them instead on a supplemental form to be used when relevant to the position. Employers can still ask about criminal backgrounds, but will not see that information up front. On September 12, the state Senate expanded this policy into law and extended it to more than 6,000 local and regional government agencies.

The law, if signed, will be the latest victory for the “ban the box” campaign, which argues that ex-convicts cannot be rehabilitated if they are immediately tossed out of the running. About one in four Americans have a criminal record, and 90 percent of employers use criminal background checks. Questions about prior felony convictions pop up not only on job applications, but also for housing, insurance, loans, and public benefits. In many states, felons are also banned from voting.

This redlined population inevitably becomes a drain on public resources. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, two million workers are shut out of the economy each year because of a felony conviction or prison record. Most have little choice but to turn to food stamps, which cost taxpayers $4 billion a year. Many do not even have that option; drug felons — who are predominantly female — are permanently barred from receiving food stamps. One study showed that this food stamp ban forced many young mothers into prostitution in order to feed their families. Given these barriers, it is no surprise that recidivism rates are sky high.

Of course, African Americans are hit hardest by this systemic discrimination. A black man has a 32 percent chance of spending time in prison in his lifetime, while a white man only has a 6 percent chance. In California, black offenders are also the most likely to fall back into crime. Since California’s harsh three-strikes law, which automatically put any three-time offender on death row, has done nothing to curb these high recidivism rates, lawmakers are now focusing on rehabilitating inmates instead.

Aviva Shen is Associate Editor of ThinkProgress. Before joining CAP, Aviva interned and wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, Salon, and New York Magazine. She also worked for the Slate Political Gabfest, a weekly politics podcast from Slate Magazine.

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