The National Employment Law Project estimates that nearly 3.9 million adults in Illinois have a criminal record, excluding them from jobs and employment.
A job advertisement posted on Chicago Craigslist last November by a temporary staffing company sought entry-level employees to work for two different manufacturers based in Lockport and Naperville. Shift hours were listed. Job descriptions were detailed. Employees would make minimum wage or just above it. And check out the highlighted criteria all applicants had to meet:
"No priors" references an applicant's criminal past. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), such language has become all too common for employers both large and small. The group makes this conclusion in "65 Million 'Need Not Apply'", a study (PDF) released this morning that analyzed job postings at city-specific Craigslist sites around the country, including Chicago.
A NELP spokesman released screen shots of some of the Chicago-area Craigslist ads to Progress Illinois. "No prior criminal records- we do background checks!" a company seeking leasing agents in Chicago, one declared. Prospective taxi drivers in DuPage and Kane counties must "have No Felony Criminal back Ground [sic.]" A restaurant franchise in Joliet required that applicants "Must be able to pass background check, no felonies or theft/fraud on record" in an ad posted about a year ago.
"Across the nation there is a consistent theme: people with criminal records 'need not apply' for available jobs," NELP writes. "Combine today’s tight job market, the upsurge in background checks, and the growing number of people with criminal records, and the results are untenable."
And they're untenable for literally millions of people. The organization calculates that 65 million adults -- more than one out of every four -- now have criminal records across the country. In Illinois, according to NELP's estimates, there are nearly 3.9 million adults with a criminal record, about 40 percent of the adult population here.
Criminal convictions linger -- a bad youthful choice can haunt people for decades. Consider the case of Darrell Langdon, a Chicago man Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice highlighted last summer.
Langdon was working for Chicago Public Schools when he was convicted of possession of a half gram of cocaine in 1985. He got help and continued working for the school district until a layoff hit 10 years later. Landgon switched to working as a mortgage broker until 2008 and then sought employment with CPS again. Here's how Turner Trice described what happened next:
[H]e decided to return to CPS, applying for the position of stationary engineer (or boiler room engineer). In his August 2008 job application, Langdon said, he disclosed his criminal record. During the next 16 months, he interviewed three times and took an aptitude test and another test that assessed his plumbing, electrical and boiler room skills. In late January, it appeared the lengthy process finally had paid off. CPS told him he was hired, pending a background check. Just days after he signed his new employee paperwork, CPS informed him they'd learned of his 1985 conviction and that he was ineligible for hire.
This case ended with CPS taking another look. "In response to my questions — and hard work by Cabrini Green Legal Aid and, frankly, by Langdon to rehabilitate himself — CPS officials agreed to take a second look at his application. Last week, they called Langdon to inform him that he'd been hired," Turner Trice wrote in a follow-up column.
But thousands of others are not so lucky. Anthony Lowery, the director of policy and advocacy for the Safer Foundation, a non-profit that trains ex-offenders and places them with employers, called a criminal past a "blanket-barrier" to finding a job.
"The criminal record is the biggest barrier to employment anyone can face," Lowery told Progress Illinois today. "It supersedes education, work experience. The big thing is people being released and the community at large doesn't understand the level of discrimination."
He went on: "Most people who get out don't understand blanket barriers to employment. A lot of them try to get jobs on their own, but after they submit 50 resumes on their own, then they'll come to Safer and get help."
This is important because Illinois' criminal justice system has a poor track record on recidivism. But employment helps -- a lot. A three-year study of its operations Safer released in 2008 found that while the recidivism rate for ex-offenders leaving the state Department of Corrections (DOC) was 52.3 percent in FY2005, the rate fell to 20 percent for offenders that went through Safer's programs and achieved at least 30 days of work and 16 percent if they worked for a year. Lowery said Safer is able to help on average 10,000 people annually. The Illinois Department of Corrections released 37,000 people according to its most recent annual report (PDF).
Advocates see a variety of solutions to give ex-offenders another chance. Lowery talked about a statewide "ban the box" law for non-violent offenders that would remove from intial job applications a box that applicants must check if they've had a prior conviction (the City of Chicago has already removed its box). That would allow employees to be considered first for a position based on their education and experience, rather than a single moment in their past, Lowery said; the prior conviction would come up later during a background check.
There are legislative efforts afoot in Springfield on this issue. State Sen. Kimberley Lightford's SB 1284 would make it a civil rights violation for "any employer, employment agency, or labor
organization to inquire into or use the fact of an arrest, the fact of a
criminal charge, or any expunged or sealed criminal history record
information ... of a person, as a basis to
refuse to hire." The bill passed out of the Senate's Criminal Law Committee by a 5-1 vote on March 17.
NELP, meanwhile, noted in its report that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled back in 1987 that barring people from jobs based on criminal records disproportionately excludes African Americans and Latinos, making seemingly "race-neutral" hiring policies anything but. (Recall that the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study recently found that nonwhites were arrested for drug-related offenses at rates that outstrip their share of the population in 62 of Illinois' 102 counties.) The organization has also been part of what it calls a wave of lawsuits using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws to challenge exclusionary hiring based on criminal records. Five other civil rights suits against large corporations about criminal records and hiring were filed last year.
In its report, the organization calls on the federal government to aggressively enforce exisiting legal protections that apply to criminal background checks; to adopt fair hiring policies itself; and for state and local governments to create fair hiring policies for ex-offenders and reach out to employers. Companies, the report states, must promote fair and open hiring processes.