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August 27, 2014, 9:00 am

Reprieve for ex-cons

Employers asked to allow former inmates to explain convictions


New federal guidelines that urge employers to give ex-offenders a chance to explain the circumstances surrounding their arrests and convictions have provoked mixed feelings among ex-offenders.

“I really think it will help people get a job,” said Tony Morris, an ex-offender who now owns his own barbershop in West Philadelphia. “Personally, I think it’s a good idea. That little box doesn’t say much.”

Not everyone agrees.

“It just gives false hope,” said one woman with a criminal history, who asked not to be identified because she is presently looking for a job. “You’re thinking ‘I have a chance at this’ and then they just throw you out later, anyway.”

Under federal law, employers can require applicants to disclose past arrests and convictions that may be used to disqualify prospective employees. However, new guidelines ask employers to provide space on applications for people with convictions or arrests to explain their individual situations, and urged employers to stop asking about criminal histories altogether.

The guidelines, issued last week in a 52-page document released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, are voluntary. In explaining why the commission decided to issue new guidelines, last revised in 1991, commission officials noted two factors which influenced their decision.

The first was the fact that the Internet has made background checks easier. According to the EEOC, 92 percent of employers now conduct criminal background checks on potential employees.

“In the twenty years since the Commission issued its [previous position] … technology made criminal history information much more accessible to employers,” said a summary statement at the beginning of the guidelines.

Commissioners also noted an increase in the number of people serving time. According to the summary, the percentage of the U.S. population that has been incarcerated has jumped from 1.8 percent of adults in 1991 to 3.2 percent in 2007.

That increase came largely in the African-American and Hispanic populations, with two out of three Black and Hispanic men expected to face arrest at some point in their lives.

An arrest should not be enough to disqualify a job candidate without an explanation, argued one advocate for the new guidelines.

“The fact of an arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred,” said Tanisha Wilburn, Acting Assistant Legal Counsel with the EEOC, in urging the commission to approve the updated guidelines. “Therefore, an exclusion based on an arrest, in itself, is not job related and consistent with business necessity.”

Wilburn added that even though convictions come with the assumption of guilt, employers should hear what applicants have to say.

“In certain circumstances … there may be reasons for an employer not to rely on the conviction record alone when making an employment decision,” she said.

City officials have taken a similar approach.

Last year, city council passed and Mayor Michael Nutter signed a law that prohibits employers from asking applicants whether they have a criminal record on job applications, or in a first interview.

“A box on a sheet of paper is not going to tell me anything until I talk to you,” Nutter said at the time. “What I need to know is that you want to turn your life around.”

According to estimates from the mayor’s office, about one-fifth of the city’s population, as many as 300,000 residents, have spent time in jail. About 40,000 of them are released each year, and at the end of their first year of freedom, about 60 percent remain unemployed. In Philadelphia, those facts are complicated by a number of hurdles that are specific to the city.

Approximately 55 percent of Philadelphia inmates are high school drop outs compared to 40 percent nationally. Similarly, only 4 percent of Philadelphia inmates had a college degree compared to 22 percent nationally.

Even with the new EEOC guidelines, Morris admitted that getting a potential employer to hear out an applicant could be difficult – often it depends on having a relationship with a potential employer who might offer an extra chance.

“You have to really get to know the person versus whatever crime they committed,” he said. “You have to take into consideration what made you do the crime or what happened.”

Though he lauded the change in guidelines, William Hart, executive director of the city’s Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, said that in reality ex-offenders face daunting job market and that would only see gains when the broader economy started to see gains.

“The bigger issue is: what is it that has to happen in America, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia where we can create more employment opportunities for people who want to work?” he asked. “When that happens there are more opportunities for ex-offenders.”