One big issue with the American criminal justice system is finding ways to reintegrate reformed criminals back into society. There is a debate between the actual function of the system itself – be it to punish, or reform – and the problem seems to be that we’re putting more emphasis on the punishment aspect of the equation, rather than reform. The result is that people are coming out of prison, or at least through some part of the system, with blights on their record and nowhere to turn.
Often, these are men and women who haven’t committed violent crimes. It’s typically drug convictions which are often unfairly levied against marginalized populations.
Employers are hesitant to hire those with convictions on their records, and because of that, many of these people find themselves in a rough spot. They can’t get jobs to support themselves, so many times they return to a life of crime. Then, they end up going right back into the system – creating a cycle that benefits no one; not those caught up in it, or the taxpayers who end up footing the bill.
There has been some headway made on this issue relatively recently. President Obama took the step of ‘banning the box’ on government job application, meaning ‘the box’ which asks applicants whether they have a conviction on their record. Other local governments have followed suit, and some private employers. But so far, it’s done little to help the problem on a macro scale.
But there is more good news: the courts are starting to provide some help to those with convictions on their record, and that’s a great sign for those who find themselves in a position in which they are trying to find work, but can’t get hired.
A Pennsylvania court unanimously struck down a state law which banned, for life, up to 200,000 people with criminal records. The issue had to do with Pennsylvania’s Older Adult Protective Services Act, which barred certain applicants with certain convictions from holding jobs in industries related to home and healthcare for the elderly.
The idea, as you can imagine, is to keep potentially dangerous people away from vulnerable, aging people. On some level, you can understand where those who support the law are coming from. But when potential care workers have things on their records that are completely unrelated, or decades old, there seems to be little sense in keeping them away from these positions.
And that’s what the court ruled. The law didn’t look into the details, it simply barred thousands of people from applying for these jobs.
“As pointed out by Petitioners,” the ruling reads, the law “makes no provision for consideration of any other factor, such as the nature of the crime, the facts surrounding the conviction, the time elapsed since the conviction, evidence of the individual’s rehabilitation, and the nature and requirements of the job…The employee’s criminal history is the single and overriding factor that a potential employer may consider. Applying the above-discussed principles, we hold that the Act’s lifetime employment ban provision is unconstitutional on its face.”
Overall, this is a fairly small step. But it’s progress nonetheless. The plaintiffs in the case, according to NPR, all had convictions that were at least 15 years old, and were nonviolent in nature. This victory means that they should be eligible for full-time jobs. One of the plaintiffs told NPR that he had been fired from several jobs, all because he had an old conviction on his record.
It’s important to remember that this is a very serious problem, and it’s not strictly limited to people who we commonly may consider to be ‘criminals’, or ‘bad apples’. About 65 million Americans have a blight of some sort on their records that will show up during a background check. The overwhelming majority of those are non-serious, non-violent crimes.
We even saw Paul Rudd’s character get fired from Baskin-Robbins in Marvel’s Ant-Man because of his criminal record (although, in that case, it was a tad different).
This is a ubiquitous issue, and one that is seriously impacting the lives of millions of Americans. The ruling out of Pennsylvania was very small in the big picture, but may be one of the first in a string of reformative actions that will get people back to work, and strengthen the economy.