In the United States, access to opportunities is the key to securing social and economic success. But, for many people impacted by the criminal legal system, the opportunities necessary for building a thriving life, family and community are out of reach.
For perspective, let’s start with a bit of history. With the passage of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action laws, workplaces in the mid-1960s began instituting diversity trainings to help educate employees on working in an integrated space. These laws, a product of the civil rights movement, created the conditions to promote representation and grow employment opportunities among Black Americans.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and a similar response to conversations around racism can be seen again in corporate America’s reaction to Black Lives Matter protests. Enter the buzzworthy industry phrase that has since been echoed by every organization, agency and corporation across the United States: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). While focusing on improving hiring practices and creating a better work environment for Black and Brown people, DEI efforts still fail to consider the impacts of the criminal legal system on those very communities.
It’s no secret that the criminal legal system disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities. Black people account for 40 percent of incarcerated people in the United States, but only represent 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Even after ending their contact with the system, people with criminal convictions face barriers and collateral consequences that hinder them from finding employment, finding affordable housing and attending college.
I’ve worked in corporate America for many years while serving on the Board of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), an organization that works with women and families most harmed by the criminal legal system to increase access to opportunity and help mitigate systemic barriers to higher education, employment and equitable access to resources. Through my work with CCF, I’ve seen the true potential, dedication and value of people with criminal convictions in the workforce. People directly impacted by the criminal legal system understand the unique barriers they face to gaining employment. That’s why they are willing to work harder and go above and beyond expectations when afforded the opportunity.
The stories of CCF alumni prove this time and time again. When afforded the opportunity to build a career and support themselves and their families, they consistently thrive. However, many struggle with finding employment after earning their degrees simply because of their criminal convictions.
For example, Victoria Roberts, currently working as the director of Human Trafficking Programs at Safe Center Long Island, was hired as the Nassau County reentry coordinator and HUB facility presenter for Department of Criminal Justice Services in 2014. In this role, she worked closely with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Officers, visited state facilities often, and ensured resources and support for people coming home to Nassau County. She also had both a social service and parole office where the parole officers she worked with said she would make an amazing parole officer and encouraged her to register for the exam.
It was only when she read the requirements on the registration page that she learned she would not qualify because of her felony conviction. “I can supervise parole officers but I can’t work as a parole officer,” she said. Instead, she worked toward a Licensed Master of Social Work and applied for a limited permit to practice. Again, she faced difficulties about her felony conviction as her application lay in limbo for months while she lost out on opportunities to work, support herself and support others.
“We weren’t all perfect in any way — but because we face stereotypes from media and other sources, employers don’t get to know the people behind the felony convictions.”
Today, Victoria continues to work with people coming home from prison, referring them to job opportunities, providing essential resources and helping them reintegrate into our ever-changing world. “When I refer justice-involved people to job opportunities around the community, employers always ask me, ‘Do you have any more of them?’” She said she works so hard with this community because she truly believes, “If we change this generation every generation following will be changed.”
And this isn’t only a problem in government; it exists across industries, even as corporations make concerted efforts to diversify their hiring processes. The fact is that many employers and hiring managers are unclear about their institution’s policies or perspective on hiring those with criminal convictions. Additionally, they are unaware of what resources are available for hiring and working with this underserved population.
Increased employment opportunities for people with those directly impacted by the criminal legal system will improve access to opportunities and social mobility for entire communities, especially marginalized communities that are most directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Investing in opportunities for people with criminal legal histories is a measure of dedication to diversity and racial equity. Organizations, governments, and corporations have the opportunity to widen their hiring pool and engage a largely untapped demographic that is highly trained and ready to work.
Nevertheless, employers who tout their racial equity campaigns still may have not included those with criminal convictions in their recruitment. One in three people in the United States have a criminal record. Whether they are minor records such as misdemeanors and arrests without conviction, or more serious records such as felony convictions, contact with the criminal legal system creates barriers to opportunity that last a lifetime. By excluding this huge section of the population from their workplaces, employers miss out on a highly qualified workforce and limit the efficacy of their diversity and racial equity initiatives.
Simply put, hiring and working with this population is not controversial. To date, 37 states and the District of Columbia have codified policies that prevent employers from asking about criminal history on job applications.
But it’s not just up to lawmakers. If employers are truly interested in racial equity and diversity hiring practices, then they should actively include those directly impacted by the criminal legal system in their recruitment hiring practices. It’s a direct reflection of their dedication to diversity and racial equity.