Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Link Between Full Employment and Criminal Justice Reform

With the unemployment rate at 5.4%, Republicans are having a hard time being negative about the "Obama recovery." So, of course, they've moved the goalposts and started complaining about the low Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR).

But it's not just Republicans who are watching that number. Economists like Jared Bernstein have suggested that stagnant wages are an issue because there is still some "slack" in the job market, as is evidenced by the historically low LFPT (in the early 2000's it hovered around 65-66% and is now around 62-63%).

While it is acknowledged that there are generational issues that have contributed to this issue (baby boomers retiring and an increasing number of high school graduates going directly to college instead of the work force), it is most often assumed that this change is also driven by "discouraged" workers who have given up on finding a job.

But as I pointed out previously and President Obama mentioned in his conversation with David Simon, we are also experiencing the generational effects of our war on drugs and tough on crime policies. A report by Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich for the Center for American Progress provides us with some important data.

1. Estimates put the number of Americans with criminal records between 70 million and 100 million. Most convictions are for misdemeanors and nonserious infractions.

2. More than 95 percent of individuals in state prisons are expected to return to their communities at some point. More than 600,000 Americans are released from federal and state prisons each year. Nearly 12 million cycle in and out of local jails each year, and still more end up with a criminal record without any period of incarceration. More than 4.7 million people are currently being “supervised” in the community, with 3.9 million of these people on probation and 850,000 of them on parole.

3. Job seekers currently on probation or parole or who have ever been incarcerated are most likely to be refused consideration for a position. And a majority of employers surveyed were unwilling to hire applicants who had served prison time. Most alarmingly, the study found that having any arrest during one’s life decreases employment opportunities more than any other employment-related stigma, such as long-term unemployment, receipt of public assistance, or having a GED instead of a high school diploma.

4. A generation ago, access to the criminal record information of job applicants was unusual. Today, however, background checks are ubiquitous: An estimated 87 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on their applicants. As a result, criminal records have become an intractable barrier to employment for tens of millions of Americans.

5. Men of color are hit especially hard. Studies find that white male and female job seekers with records have better employment chances than black or Hispanic applicants with records.

6. The lifelong consequences of having a criminal record—and the stigma that accompanies one—stand in stark contrast to research on “redemption” that documents that once an individual with a prior nonviolent conviction has stayed crime free for three to four years, that person’s risk of recidivism is no different from the risk of arrest for the general population.

7. One recent study finds that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the subsequent criminal records that haunt people for years after they have paid their debt to society.

It is clear from this data that - if we are ever going to tackle the issue of LFPR and the disparities in unemployment for people of color - it is critical that we address this issue. Also, as #7 suggests, doing so would have a dramatic affect on the current rate of poverty in this country.

Vallas and Dietrich provide pages of important actions that can be taken address this issue. But as Dietrich explains in another article, passage of the REDEEM Act - which would allow for the expungement of federal criminal records - is perhaps the most important step that could be taken immediately.

The next time a politician/candidate brings up the LFPR as a sign that our economy is still struggling (as Jeb Bush did just this week), I hope someone will ask them what their position is on the REDEEM Act.

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