By Alan Bean
I spent last night with 15 homeless men at Broadway Baptist Church. For the past six or seven years, a number of Fort Worth congregations open their doors to homeless people during the hottest and coldest months of the year. This was my first time, but our guests knew the drill. Upon arrival, they got out their mattresses and settled in. Some of the men spent the evening playing cards and chatting with church members, but most turned in immediately after dinner. This morning, they ate the hot breakfast we prepared, then wiped their tables, stacked the chairs and swept the floor without a word of instruction from anyone.
Some of the men shared their stories with me, others did not; but not a single man is homeless by choice. Many of them would be working if they could, but jobs are in short supply, especially if you have a prison record. This morning I found a message from Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project in my inbox.
“The United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) held a briefing on December 7 in Washington regarding the impact of criminal background checks on employment, and its particular effects for black and Latino workers. Specifically, USCCR sought to determine “whether the new EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Guidance policy or other prohibitions or limitations on the use of criminal background checks results in lower job opportunities and reduced employment overall among minorities, including nonoffenders.”
Those interested in submitting comments are asked to consider the following:
- Nearly one in three American adults is arrested by age 23.
- Many of those who have been arrested (and thus have a “criminal record” that could appear on a criminal background check) have never been convicted of a crime.
- Black workers are disproportionately impacted by criminal background checks, reflecting disparities in the criminal justice system and racial bias among employers. Research has documented that African Americans with no felony convictions are no more likely to receive a callback or job offer as whites with a felony record.
- Employment is essential for people who have broken the law and are trying to reenter society. Barring such people from getting a job increases the odds that they will commit another crime.
- The bottom line is that people should have the opportunity for employment in jobs for which they are qualified and for which their criminal record is irrelevant. The overly broad use of criminal background checks by employers has a disproportionate impact on people of color.
The folks at the Sentencing Project are right: “employment is essential for people who have broken the law and are trying to reenter society.” In the interest of public safety, we have made it virtually impossible for people with broken lives to take pride in honest work and acts of service. They lack the funds to support independence, but that’s just the beginning. They are also unable to make the psychological shift from dependency to self-confidence that spells the difference between success and failure.
Do we want these guys confined to the streets? Current public policy suggests that we do. Public safety is important to be sure. But true safety requires that every man and woman who wants a job has a job, especially those who are struggling to piece a life back together. A felony conviction should not mean lifelong banishment from the workforce and meaningful involvement in church and community.