Seven years ago this week, I put out a plea to the drug dealers of Baltimore to stop killing each other and to give me a call (at 410-332-6166) if they'd like help finding legitimate work. The phone started ringing immediately, and it rang for months, and then years.
Drug dealers were among the callers. However, the vast majority were men who had been incarcerated for a whole range of offenses but who now couldn't find work. And it wasn't for lack of trying. Too many employers, they said, refused to hire someone with a criminal record. Even former inmates who managed to get warehouse or custodial jobs were shown the door after a few months when their background checks turned up arrests or convictions.
I stopped counting the calls and letters at 7,000, and that was at least four years ago. But ex-offenders and their kin keep contacting me for help.
"We are very concerned grandparents," wrote a couple from Baltimore County on behalf of a 29-year-old offender known as Rusty, who had gone to a Maryland prison for drug possession, driving while intoxicated and violating his probation. Home now, and living with a sister, Rusty had discovered what thousands of offenders already knew — many employers had blanket prohibitions against giving jobs to people with records; they refused to even meet them and look into their eyes.
I sent Rusty's grandparents a list of Maryland agencies that run re-entry programs and a few locally-owned companies known to hire people with records. The companies that did so were usually small or medium-sized businesses that years ago recognized the challenges of hiring people for low-wage jobs in the Baltimore market — many of the applicants had served time; you either deal with that reality, on a case by case basis, or you might not be able to hire enough help.
Re-entry for ex-offenders turned out to be a sleeping giant of a problem in our midst, something that affects thousands of people in Maryland and millions across the country. Four significant factors contributed to the problem: The surge in the nation's jail and prison populations brought on by the war on drugs and "zero-tolerance" policing; the use of computerized databases to detect criminal backgrounds with speed and ease; heightened security procedures in the wake of9/11; and the increasing number of "negligence in hiring" lawsuits that make companies reluctant to take a chance on a hire with a criminal record.
This is a complex problem — ex-offenders need jobs to avoid falling back to their old habits and committing more crimes, and companies need to avoid the liability risks that come with hiring men and women who have gone astray of the law.
In late April, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its 25-year-old guidelines with regard to job applicants who have arrests and convictions on their life's resume. The EEOC said employers cannot automatically deny employment to such people; they can only do so if their criminal offenses are relevant to the job they seek. Unless a company can show that excluding someone with a record is "'job related and consistent with business necessity' for the position in question, the exclusion is unlawful under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]," the EEOC declared.
The guidelines already have been criticized as federal overreach and as an unrealistic burden on employers. Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, believes the guidelines place companies in a "vicious Catch 22." As Mr. von Spakovsky sees it: "Business owners will have to choose between conducting criminal background checks and risking liability for supposedly violating Title VII or ... abandoning background checks and risking liability for criminal conduct by employees."
While I agree with some of Mr. von Spakovsky's concerns, I think there is a middle ground here. It just takes effort, a personal approach to hiring, and a concern for fairness.
Companies can still ask the question, and they can still run background checks. The EEOC is merely saying: Do the work. Stop the blanket prohibitions. Look at the nature of the convictions of job applicants and when their offenses occurred. Evaluate the men and women seeking to work for you. Don't eliminate them because of their records. Look into their eyes. Give them a chance.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is email@example.com.