It’s been there seemingly forever, usually toward the bottom of the job application, one form or another of the box awaiting a checkmark. “Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Yes or no. Felony or misdemeanor?” The box, in fact, appears on the employment application of this newspaper.
The box, if checked, is a coffin for a host of career options. It’s time for employers, including the city of Concord, to give offenders a fair shot at re-entering society by eliminating the box and instead asking the question only of applicants in the final stage of the employment process. Called “fair-chance hiring” the change gives qualified applicants the opportunity to state their offense and explain how they have been rehabilitated.
In New Hampshire, a felon can’t work as a bartender or serve alcohol without a waiver from the state liquor commission. Many of the 144 occupations that require licensing by the state routinely reject applicants with a criminal record, as do many public and private employers. As a result, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and UNH Law School professor Albert Scherr, in a state with the lowest unemployment rate in the land, employers are unfairly rejecting thousands of worthy applicants out of hand.
The report estimates, based on national statistics, that nearly 350,000 New Hampshire residents have a criminal record of some sort and 90,000 Granite Staters are felons. Nationally, 60 percent of people released from incarceration are unemployed one year later. Those who do find jobs earn 40 percent less than people with no criminal record.
A crime committed in youth can haunt an offender for a lifetime. Offenders interviewed for the report described applying for dozens of jobs with no response, of securing an “under-the-table job” for pay far below what a non-offender would receive. Housing, already difficult to find at an affordable price, can be almost impossible for a felon to secure. The rules of the federal Section 8 housing program bar not just a felon convicted of a sex crime or offenses that arise from drug or alcohol abuse, but everyone in his or her family.
Difficulty finding stable housing and a decent job substantially increase the risk of recidivism. Many released offenders experience periods of homelessness, which increases the likelihood that rather than rejoin society, they will return to the lifestyle that led to prison. Too often that means a return to the drug use that’s claiming hundreds of New Hampshire lives every year. There is a better way.
To date, 11 states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have adopted some form of fair-chance hiring practices. Hundreds of municipalities have done likewise, as have employers such as Starbucks, Google, Coca-Cola, Walmart and Facebook. Studies, including one done by the Johns Hopkins Health Resource Center, found that the employee retention rates for people with criminal records is substantially higher than average. Eager to prove they’ve turned their life around, they typically become loyal, hard-working employees.
Nationally, the report said, approximately one-third of American adults over age 23 have a criminal record, about the same percentage of adults with a college degree. Every year in New Hampshire, more than 1,000 people are released from jail or prison and almost all need a job and a place to live. The box is an unnecessary barrier to securing both.
We encourage employers to consider what role the box plays in their hiring practices. It’s a small step toward a more humane, stable and productive society.