It’s no secret that former prisoners have difficulties finding work once they get out. But ex-convict unemployment isn’t just a burden on them, it’s a financial disaster to our economy and our taxpayers.
Scary numbers for a serious problem
Various studies have different estimates as to the unlikelihood an ex-felon landing a job over anyone else, but the numbers are always significant. A 2008 Urban Institute study found that, eight months after prison, over half of those released from prison were unemployed. And a 2010 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that incarceration reduces the average number of weeks worked by a 45-year-old male by about nine weeks (about 19 percent).
Why can’t ex-convicts find employment?
The biggest obstacle in the way of ex-convicts is the checkbox on almost every job application that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Often, the company does not give the applicant a chance to explain the nature of the crime they committed before disqualifying them from the job.
Beyond the box, ex-convicts are often less appealing applicants. Ex-convicts have usually been unemployed for an extended period of time and disconnected from society, the workforce and technology, all of which looks bad to potential employers. They are also less likely to have a college or a high school education, nixing that useful line from their resumes.
Even further, an estimated 70 percent of inmates have low literacy ability and cannot read above a 4th grade level, which makes it hard for them to even understand how to seek employment, write their resume or fill out the application.
Why is this a problem?
Well, first of all, it might be illegal for companies to use the felony box as the reason to not employ someone. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that excluding applicants who have criminal records may constitute employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and has begun filing lawsuits against companies that do so. Eight states have their own laws against employment discrimination of felons, as well.
However, according to an attorney at the National Employment Law Project, it can be extremely difficult for ex-convicts to file lawsuits if they feel they are facing bias, unless they can also prove racial discrimination.
But beyond the law, it’s economically tragic. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that not hiring ex-offenders costs the U.S. economy $57 to $67 billion annually in lost economic output.
Numerous studies have shown that ex-convicts who are unable to find employment are much more likely to end up right back in prison at a cost to taxpayers. So, it’s costing everyone and helping no one.
Changes for the better
A movement called “Ban the Box” was founded in 2003 to work to remove the felony checkbox from employer’s applications.
Since its founding, 12 states have removed the question from their job applications. Employers can still conduct criminal background checks, but they at least have to review the application and consider their qualifications first.
At the federal level, President Obama endorsed the Ban the Box campaign by having federal agencies delay criminal background inquiries until late in the hiring process.
Though it doesn’t fix the lack of education, literacy and housing that hurt former convicts’ chances for employment, the Ban the Box movement is a great start in expanding opportunities for former inmates and keeping them out of prison. You can take part in the campaign by expressing support on their webpage and urging local employers and politicians to take part in eliminating the felony box from applications.
Additionally, you can join the effort to get employment for ex-felons by donating to one of the many organizations that aids former convicts in writing resumes, filling out job applications and landing interviews, such as Help for Felons, Felony Friendly and Safer.
Though the burden on former inmates and their families could be enough of a reason to help them find employment, we should really keep in mind the economic consequences of letting the unemployment rate of former convicts go unchecked.
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