Last month the U.S. Supreme Court again refused a request by Governor Jerry Brown to stay a Ninth Circuit decision ordering the release of 9,600 inmates by the end of the year.
In spite of the decision, no reasonable person believes the streets will be teeming with violent criminals on New Year’s Day. What is certain, however, is that the ranks of California’s unemployed will swell with those former prisoners, as those released will join thousands of other “ex-cons” unable to find work because of their past criminal convictions. While news of sluggish job growth and lingering unemployment cycles through the front pages every few weeks, scant attention is paid to the legal obstacles placed in the path of thousands of would-be workers who have been convicted of a crime.
Momentum has been building to address at least one of those obstacles – the dreaded “paper screen” intended to ferret out applicants with criminal records. Governor Brown’s signature on Assembly Bill 218 placed California among a growing list of jurisdictions that are “Banning the Box.”
Ban-the-Box initiatives were originally pushed by formerly-incarcerated people. They believed that by eliminating the kind of “check the box”-type question — “Have you been ever been convicted…” — from employment applications, they might be given a fair opportunity to prove their worthiness for the job. Now employers, including most recently Target, are seeing the wisdom of the approach.
Help for former prisoners re-entering the workforce is long overdue. The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, and California ranks at or near the top of every list measuring the number of individuals in federal or state prison, local jails or under supervised release. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, incarceration rates have fallen slightly the last two years, meaning more former prisoners are re-entering the work force each year.
Ban-the-box legislation is just the first step, but it’s an important one. In the absence of legal protections, what former prisoners face can barely be distinguished from Jim Crow. Individuals with past criminal convictions face discrimination that is not only common, it’s effectively encouraged. No group continues to be discriminated against so openly, with base racial prejudices endorsed at the highest levels. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia no doubt speaks, albeit in code, to these unconscious racial fears many people have about the release of any inmates—whom he describes as “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”
Justice Scalia’s myth of a super-criminal appears to have more in common with his taste in TV or literature than it is does in reality, where nearly a third of released prisoners are over 40. But he’s hardly alone.
Few constituencies are more marginalized than former prisoners. Our willingness to dehumanize former prisoners ignores the simple fact that the only difference between “them” and “us” is that they got caught while we got jobs, and get to keep them.
Stories of redemption are easy to find, though countless others we don’t hear about break the other way. It’s time we treated ex-offenders individually and on their own merits so that redemption can become the rule, and not the exception.