A De Facto Life Sentence

Preventing former criminals who have served their time from getting a job helps nobody.

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WideModern_Prison_061713.jpg
This June 6, 2013, photo, shows the Utah State Prison, in Draper, Utah.

The basics of criminal justice in this country are pretty simple. You commit a bad crime, you generally go to jail or receive some sort of punishment. And after you've paid your fines or served your time, you get to rejoin society as a functioning, contributing citizen.

Except that not everyone makes it that smoothly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit against both BMW's South Carolina manufacturing facility, as well as Dollar General, complaining that the companies are employing policies that discriminate against African-Americans.

What does this have to do with criminal behavior? It turns out that both companies have instituted policies that disproportionately hurt African-Americans – in this case, African-Americans who have been convicted of felonies. Some of the crimes are, in retrospect, not all that worrisome years later (especially when the individuals have been on the straight and narrow ever since). And some occurred far in the past. In the BMW case, a restructuring led the company to force employees to reapply for their jobs, and some workers were rejected because they had, at one time, been convicted of felonies.

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The EEOC argues that while companies legally may inquire about criminal convictions, and refuse to hire certain ex-cons if the crime is relevant to the job, they can't just willy-nilly reject someone simply because he or she stole something once or had a long-ago drug conviction. The way the accused companies applied the no-convict policy, the EEOC charges, is a back-door way of weeding out African-American workers.

But the issue here isn't just about race. It's about how we view our system of crime, punishment and rehabilitation. If someone is given a two-year sentence for, say, a minor crime, is it fair to punish that person for the rest of his or her life for that infraction? Does such a policy not become a de facto life sentence? And if someone is denied the ability to make an honest living, should we be all that surprised when that person chooses a dishonest way of paying the bills?

Michelle Singletary, the excellent business columnist who writes about personal finance for the Washington Post, has the answer: ban the box. Singletary, who admirably conducts workshops in prisons for inmates ready to join the unbarred world, talks about a female inmate who sold drugs to buy things like designer duds that she could never have as a child. Now, she's in prison, in flip-flops, and hoping to make a real life for herself on the outside. Notes Singletary:

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Employers have a right to check the backgrounds of potential workers to ensure they are hiring competent employees who will not jeopardize the safety of their workers or customers. But having a job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. That woman I met at the workshop and so many others like her have a better chance of redeeming themselves if a checked box doesn't summarily block them from fairly competing for a job.

When ex-offenders trying to change and become productive citizens can't find employment, we all lose.

The "box" – the one that asks if you've been convicted of a crime – can confine rehabilitated people into another box they'll never be able to escape. This country brags about being the place of opportunity, of new beginnings and fresh starts. Why aren't some ex-cons given the same chance?

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