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Ex-offenders deserve fair shot at employment

More than 70 million U.S. adults carry a conviction record that can appear in a routine background check. Rap sheets can include civil disobedience, failure to pay fines or first-degree murder – but they all automatically disqualify applicants for most jobs.

Many employers eliminate applicants from consideration without looking at their qualifications. This systemic discrimination is illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and effectively extends prison sentences, in reality, for the rest of our lives. It uses formerly incarcerated people – including members of All Of Us Or None, a grass-roots advocacy group – as the scapegoat for our society’s social ills.

This discrimination has a huge impact on our communities. If we can’t get jobs, we can’t feed our families, maintain housing or get health insurance. Although we’ve been to jail or prison, our lives are much more than that. Once we’ve completed our sentence, we should be considered just any other job candidate – on our qualifications.

Since the inception of our campaign to “ban the box” marked “Have you been convicted of a felony?” we continue to urge employers to first consider whether it is actually necessary to do a background check. If it is, we urge employers to focus on qualifications while evaluating the time since the conviction and the relevance to the job in question, as well as rehabilitation and other mitigating factors.

There’s an unfortunate assumption that background checks ensure public safety. But most fingerprint checks, which are done by for-profit companies, are susceptible to inaccurate or outdated information.

After the passage of Proposition 47 in California in 2014, thousands had felony convictions reclassified as misdemeanors and their conviction records cleared. However, background check companies aren’t regulated or required to maintain updated records and could incorrectly show that an applicant “lied” on their application. In addition, background checks using rap sheets reveal information on arrests where charges are later dropped, which in most states is illegal to use in hiring.

Corporations including Target, Wal-Mart and Koch Industries, as well as 19 states, have changed their hiring policies without compromising public safety. Many companies that have “banned the box,” such as Uber, still conduct a background checks, but one that applies specifically to the job.

Everybody who is on parole, probation or has completed their sentence deserves a chance at meaningful work. Many of us have been convicted of “violent” offenses without having done anything actively violent.

We all need a fair chance. We need to stop dividing current and former prisoners between the deserving and undeserving. The reality is people who have served their sentences for all types of convictions are leaving prison and want to work to contribute to our families and community in a meaningful way.

We already live in your community; you pass hundreds of us on the street every day. Doing our respective parts to end discrimination against people with convictions will contribute to promoting stable employment and housing needed for all of us who also want to be safe and secure.

Dorsey Nunn is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Manuel La Fontaine is an organizer with All Of Us Or None. 

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