As a new NFL season begins, all eyes are on Michael Vick, curious about whether his redemption arc will continue. After serving time in prison for his role in a dog fighting ring, Vick played the best football of his career last season. President Barack Obama even phoned Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to commend him for giving Vick a second chance. The average convicted criminal returning to society after incarceration is not so fortunate.
While the national unemployment rate stubbornly remains above 9% and job creation becomes the main issue of the 2012 presidential race, the unemployment rate of recent ex-offenders is a staggering 50% or higher. As a job counselor in Washington, D.C., I have completed many job applications with unemployed ex-offenders. Sooner or later, we always reach the inevitable question: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” The applicants typically hang their heads and mutter “yes,” and I can feel their hope for employment palpably diminish.
One survey found that only 38% of employers are willing to hire ex-offenders. In the current sluggish economy, employers have a larger pool of applicants to choose from, which means that even those willing employers are likely to find an equally qualified applicant with a clean record and less accompanying risk. This is especially problematic because a majority of states require recently released prisoners to “maintain gainful employment” as a condition of parole. Failure to obtain a job can mean more time in prison. Employers, in turn, are often missing out on excellent employees, since ex-offenders have strong incentives to perform well, as they face pressure from their parole officers, their families, and their own desires to turn their lives around.
Employment is one of the primary indicators of whether a released inmate will become a repeat offender. In order to reduce recidivism — and the budget-busting prison costs that accompany the United States’ high incarceration rate — policies must be enacted to improve ex-offenders’ chances at finding work. There are tax credits available for employers who hire applicants with criminal charges and federal bonding programs to insure business owners against property-related crimes, but these combined policies are only making a small dent in the unemployment rate of ex-offenders.
There is a promising movement called Ban the Box, which has already scored legislative victories in six states and more than 25 cities and counties, though most of the legislation applies only to public employers. The movement proposes to ban questions pertaining to criminal history from initial job applications so that ex-offenders are not at such a disadvantage in a competitive job market. The questions may be asked only after a conditional offer of employment at which point the employer may rescind the offer. The final decision is thus more informed by the applicant’s qualifications and no longer based solely on his or her criminal history.
The Eagles wanted Vick because he had already established himself as a prime quarterback. They concluded that his abilities as a player outweighed his background. “Ban the Box” proposes to place ordinary ex-offenders in a similar position by giving them the opportunity to sell themselves and their skills without the weight of their crimes holding them back.
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