Sentenced to a Life of Unemployment?
Council Member Bruce Harrell Wants to Help 40,000 Ex-Cons Get Jobs in Seattle
Currently in Seattle, private employers can conduct a criminal background check on any job applicant before even agreeing to grant him or her an interview. The problem, laments Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, is that qualified workers who have done their time—or worse, were simply arrested and never charged with a crime—are still being denied jobs, or even interviews, as a form of passive punishment that continues long after they leave jail. "In fact, many job listings found online will bluntly state 'No felons need apply,'" Harrell says. "We're trying to eliminate that."
With that goal in mind, Harrell introduced a bill on September 4 that would prevent most employers in Seattle from viewing the criminal record of job applicants until after the person is conditionally hired. Further, it would ban employers from denying jobs solely on the basis of a person's past criminal history. The result would bring former offenders back into the labor market while simultaneously breaking the cycle of offenders returning to jail and prison.
"We know for a fact that one of the primary reasons people recommit crime is that they can't find jobs," says Harrell, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee. "As much as society says we want to give these people another chance, our policies don't necessarily reflect that."
Roughly 38,619 Seattle residents have a felony conviction on their record, according to Dr. Katherine Beckett, a sociology professor at the University of Washington. Beckett, who extrapolated that figure from national 2010 conviction rates, says the estimate is "likely conservative." She adds that nearly 114,000 Seattle residents have some form of arrest record that could raise red flags during a background check.
But some say they need those red flags (and their concerns about Harrell's bill could telegraph a wave of opposition).
"We use criminal records to look at relationships between a person's convictions and job or housing—[for instance] checking for drug or alcohol convictions for new tenants to gauge potential future risks," explains Sean Martin, a spokesman for the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound. He's concerned that this bill, which was originally set to impose new limits on background checks when applying for housing, "will be a springboard to our background checks being taken away" for landlords.
Business groups that represent hundreds of employers, such as the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association, have expressed concerns about this type of law in the past. For now, they're waiting to see the bill, but city hall sources say their past concerns echo Martin's, who asks if the bill creates a "protected class" for ex-criminals.
But Harrell says his bill would provide exceptions if a convict's record could pose a threat to a business. While it would be illegal to deny a job to someone based solely on arrest or conviction records, the bill says a business owner could refuse employment if there is a "direct relationship" between the criminal record and the job being offered (e.g., a bank could refuse to hire someone previously convicted of robbery). Harrell points out that the City of Seattle already uses these same guidelines when hiring for government jobs, and similar legislation has already been adopted in Chicago; Jacksonville, Florida; and Massachusetts.
"We'll use federal guidelines and input from the Office for Civil Rights to determine what convictions are directly related to certain lines of employment," Harrell said, speaking to Martin's and employers' fears.
"We have already created a subclass of people in society," Harrell says. "Now we simply must reapproach how we look at crime prevention and public safety."
Stevan Dozier is part of that subclass. When Dozier was locked up in Washington's Monroe Correctional Complex in 1994, it was supposed to be for life. (Dozier was the sixth man to be sentenced under Washington's three strikes law, and thanks to a second-degree robbery conviction—for serial purse snatching—all his strikes were up.) But in 2008, after reviewing Dozier's case and seeing the progress he'd made while incarcerated, King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg argued for his release, and in May 2009, after 15 years behind bars and against all odds, Dozier was released from prison. He now works as a case manager for other ex-offenders, where he connects his primarily juvenile clients with social services, counseling, and employment. It's this last component—employment—that worries him the most. Without steady jobs and housing, roughly 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release, according to a 2010 study titled "Ex-Offenders and the Labor Market" conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
"I've seen hard-working guys denied work over and over," Dozier says. "I got lucky. Most guys aren't."
The CEPR study found that a felony conviction or imprisonment reduces the ability of ex-offenders to find jobs by 15 to 30 percent.
But as Dozier knows from experience, getting a job when you have a criminal record is tough—and it's getting even tougher. An article presented at an equal opportunities job conference in 2002 titled "Will Employers Hire Ex-Offenders?" used data from a survey in California. It shows that the number of employers conducting mandatory criminal background checks rose from 32 percent in 1994 to 44 percent in 2002. Furthermore, 40 percent of those surveyed employers were unwilling to hire someone with a criminal record for even the most unskilled job.
Harrell doesn't expect to get a vote on the controversial legislation until January. (It will likely take that long to secure council support beyond social-justice mainstays Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien.)
In the meantime, Dozier is hoping that Harrell's bill can get the votes it needs to pass. "For years, these guys have been beaten down, they're told they're no good, and they get to believing it after a time," Dozier says. "But if you give them a start—the chance for a certain amount of success—they start to thinking, 'Maybe I can change where my life is headed.'"