Like Grief After a Car Accident, Employment Consequences of a Criminal Record Can Last a Lifetime

Businesspeople standing in line
Businesspeople standing in line

February 9, 2008 was the worst day of my life.

That was the day my girlfriend threw me a birthday party, and I made the terrible choice to get drunk and drive us home. I flipped my car on I-97 outside of Annapolis, MD, landing upside down on a guardrail, killing Laura, and ending the life we planned to build together. When I woke up in the Shock Trauma Center and heard what I'd done, I knew my grief and the pain I caused Laura's loved ones would haunt me forever.

What I did not realize was that by joining the 70-100 million Americans with criminal records, I immediately and permanently lost rights and opportunities I had previously taken for granted. Laura's family has somehow forgiven me and continued to welcome me at their gatherings, but society offers only perpetual punishment.

When our sentences end, people with criminal records are expected to return home, rejoin our communities, and begin to support our families and selves.

Yet, the American Bar Association has catalogued over 40,000 barriers for people with criminal offenses ranging from petty public nuisances and drug possession to serious financial and violent crimes. Even after we pay our debt to society, these policies deny us student aid and college admissions. They keep us from working in certain jobs and expose us to unfair employment discrimination. They make it harder for us to live with our families and deny us the security of safety net programs. We miss out on simple things like volunteering to coach a daughter's basketball team or accompany a son on a school field trip.

Many of these policies exclude us without regard to the type of crime we committed, whether our crime was recent or long ago, or what we have done to show we've changed.

When I got out of jail, I started the hard work of rebuilding. I had a law degree from Georgetown, but my probation meant bar membership was out of the question. My defense attorney gave me some part-time work. That and a tax refund got me through the first few months.

I hoped some business or law firm might give me a chance to use what I'd learned to start a career. I applied to over 60 jobs, but nobody would hire me. Eventually, I settled for work as a waiter in downtown Baltimore.

The existence of an entire class of people who are unemployed or underemployed because of a criminal record is bad news for the economy and society. Unemployment among the formerly incarcerated is as high as 50%, costing the economy $65 billion annually in lost productivity and harming growth. By underutilizing the skills of the one in three Americans who have a criminal record, employers are missing out on a huge pool of talented workers. People who are out of work are more likely to commit new crimes and less able to support their children or other dependents.

Broadly excluding workers with criminal records makes no sense. We know more and more about the risk of reoffending and ways to keep the workplace safe.

Top companies have begun to take notice. Walmart and Target have "banned the box" asking about a criminal record on their job applications. Uber just announced that it will be tailoring screening practices for drivers in California to be fairer to people whose criminal records are not relevant to passenger safety. Uber is reaching out to people in California who were previously disqualified during the screening process to let them know about a new law that makes it possible to get records reduced so they can more easily find opportunities to earn a living.

I am one of the lucky ones. I will never get over what I did that night, but I have started a family and found a fulfilling career. Millions of other Americans have not had a second chance. Most of them committed crimes less serious than mine.

While the political system moves slowly to toward reforming the criminal justice system, the private sector can have an immediate effect on the economy and communities by adopting fair hiring policies.

That means evaluating people on all their merits, not just the worst day of their life.