In any sector, the majority of jobs require background checks for a variety of reasons, but one justification that remains paramount is to enhance workplace safety by weeding out job applicants with untrustworthy or violent behavior. However, many community members and politicians are asking themselves if prohibiting individuals with felonious backgrounds from entering the traditional workforce is really helping anyone.
Felons, particularly those who have been incarcerated for their crimes, have an incredibly difficult time reentering society after facing their charges and/or jail time. Post-prison life offers a myriad of obstacles, and for many, obtaining employment feels impossible. Ex-cons may even have acquired advanced degrees during (or after) serving their sentences, but that doesn’t eliminate a criminal record from becoming an automatic dismissal from a job applicant pool. Furthermore, ex-cons often comprise disadvantaged and low-income demographics, populations that have higher unemployment rates.
US legislators have instituted laws like “Ban the Box” (in several cities and states) and Prop 47 (which passed in California in 2014) to try and assist individuals with criminal records in their job searches. Ban the Box prohibits employers from running initial criminal background checks in the primary stages of the application process, allowing offenders to explain the circumstances surrounding their convictions to potential employers. Prop 47 reduces some felony charges to misdemeanors, so the charges may not apply to some job application questions, or they may not show up in background screenings that only search for felonies.
The idea behind the aforementioned legislation is not to create a workplace where individuals without criminal records are at risk, but to create a job market that allows applicants with criminal records to rehabilitate their lives and failing demographic statistics. Some even argue that felons do not pose a greater risk than any other individual who might have the same inclination toward illegal behavior, but simply hasn’t been caught yet. Antagonists Prop 47 argue that going as far as reclassifying certain drug and property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies discredits the seriousness of criminal behavior.
Ban the Box allows employers to run background checks at later stages of the hiring process, where they can justify their need for excluding individuals with particular offenses from the applicant pool, rather than using such screenings as an auto-elimination tool. While a criminal record cannot allow an employer to enter the mind of a job applicant or know all of his/her intentions, it can speak to certain types of behavior, especially if the individual has committed a violent crime or will be working with sensitive information/demographics (like children, the disabled, and the elderly).
Changes in employment screening and criminal record legislation raise awareness about very real problems. In the right situation, employment could alter a social system or struggling demographic in a positive way. The ability to provide for oneself and contribute to society could instill a sense of self-worth and purpose in an employee who might otherwise be tempted to turn back to crime without an alternative. Employers should consider the character of individuals in conjunction with the safety and integrity of their workplaces, making informed decisions with the information they acquire, not just automatic ones.