The Elusive Clean Slate: Past Convictions and Present Employment

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Last week, I spoke with Janet,* a woman who has a long history of peacefully protesting against environmental harm. Over ten years ago, during one of those protests, Janet was arrested for trespassing, convicted, and sentenced to 20 hours of community service. She has committed no crimes since then.

But, like many Americans, Janet is now looking for a job, and her criminal record is proving an obstacle. In the past six months, she’s had two offers of employment withdrawn after employers conducted a background check.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers can consider only convictions related to the specific job, and can almost never consider arrests that did not result in conviction. For example, a bank could refuse to hire people with embezzlement convictions. But a ten-year-old conviction for trespass during a peaceful political protest should never be the basis for a denial of employment. Unfortunately, many employers appear to jump to the erroneous conclusion that all people with criminal records are likely to commit future crimes and won’t make good employees.

These policies can be devastating, and not only to people with criminal records. Studies show that most people who have been incarcerated have children, and that those children are more likely to live in poverty, even years after their parent’s release. There’s also evidence that if people with criminal records are able to find employment, they are less likely to reoffend – making neighborhoods safer.

The ACLU of Washington is committed to helping people with criminal records break down unlawful barriers to employment. If you’ve been denied employment because of a criminal record unrelated to the job, we’d like to hear from you.

We also are committed to raising awareness about how denying jobs to people with criminal records hurts our community. If you’re interested in learning more about the consequences of mass incarceration, Bruce Western, a national expert on these issues, is speaking at Town Hall in Seattle on Thursday, Oct. 13th at 7:30 pm.  We encourage everyone to attend.

*Name changed to protect privacy.