Editor’s note: This article was written by Ken Oliver, Executive Director, Checkr.org
As Fair Chance Month comes to an end, I am reminded of the immense progress we’ve collectively driven toward building a fairer future for the millions of individuals with a criminal record in the U.S. Still; it is a time to remind ourselves of the work yet to be done, the essential reimagining of reentry and recommitment to rewriting the stigmatizing narrative justice-impacted Americans face in our country.
The unemployment rate for Americans who suffer from an arrest or conviction record remains at a startling 27%. For those who have managed to find employment during their first year post-incarceration, 49% earn $10,000 a year or less.
More than 600,000 men and women leave state and federal prisons every year to return to their communities with the hope of rebuilding their lives and finding livable wage work. Unfortunately, for most, that hope has remained illusory because this country’s justice system has maintained the archaic and draconian practice of civil death. A holdover from medieval Europe and the Roman Empire, civil death was a form of punishment in perpetuity for people who were convicted of a crime. This form of punishment meant you would lose all of your civil rights, including the right to marry, and in many cases, meant you could be assaulted or killed with impunity.
Fast forward 1,000+ years to “civilized society”. We live in a country that tells us that if we are convicted of a crime we must “pay our debt to society”. This debt usually comes in the form of a jail or prison sentence. When men and women are released from incarceration their proverbial debt to society is assumed to be paid. For better or for worse, that is a general tenet of the American justice system. But America has betrayed that tenet.
Instead of allowing the 70 million people with arrest or conviction records to pick themselves back up and move on with their lives, she quietly insists that a second debt must be paid, in perpetuity.
Remarkably, America has erected more than 48,000 federal and state statutes, regulations, disabilities, and barriers that prevent men and women released from incarceration from being able to access employment, housing, occupational licensing, and economic stability. These unnecessary and often punitive barriers present formidable challenges for people’s ability to move forward. These barriers exacerbate the shame, trauma, and eviscerate hope and possibility. In the current system, senseless policies have been created out of unfounded fear and have only been effective in manufacturing conditions that fuel economic instability, desperation, and recidivism.
Perhaps more importantly, these barriers have acted to effectively lock millions of people into cycles of poverty and low expectation for any meaningful opportunity to thrive.
So that we are clear, the number one driver of recidivism and mass incarceration is poverty. This often overlooked fact disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities at alarming rates. Black men are arrested and incarcerated at 5x the rate of White men. Black women 3x more than White women. These numbers reflect a larger systemic issue tied to America’s praxis of both overt and covert racism. A praxis I don’t have the word count to recount here.
It’s difficult to fathom the experience of someone leaving prison to reenter society today. That a person’s first steps of freedom are too often overshadowed by the terrifying unknown, unsure of where they will sleep that night, how they will afford food, or find a livable-wage career—that perpetual second debt, that recurring life-long sentence.
A vision for a fairer future
Recent data shows that access to livable wage employment decreases recidivism and crime exponentially, and promotes healthier and more vibrant communities. More people are able to contribute to the tax base and to the local economy. Families are reunited and gain the opportunity to thrive. Hope and economic stability replace desperation and despair. We as citizens of this country need to work out how to welcome back our returning neighbors.
It has been my life’s work to create economic opportunities and pathways to long-term success for those with records. And as I navigate this landscape, what’s become clear to me is the interdisciplinary nature of change.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it come from a single piece of legislation, one shift of perspective, or any single act. Seismic change, the kind required to form the future we dream of, comes from a holistic set of efforts.
Fair chance hiring should also be considered the bedrock of any meaningful practice of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). If we are excluding one of the country’s most vulnerable populations of workers, how are defining “inclusion” in the workplace? As we know, you can’t be “almost” inclusive.
If we are not willing to support the tens of millions of folks impacted by the justice system by providing meaningful access to safe and dignified housing, education, livable wage employment, and the supports needed to become contributing members of the community, I’ve yet to hear an intellectually honest answer on what we as a society expect folks to do?
At Checkr.org, we believe that all individuals—regardless of race, gender, sexuality, arrest or conviction history—deserve a fair chance to work, earn a living, and contribute positively to their respective communities. We also believe that being provided a fair chance should not be limited to the number of mistakes or type of arrest or conviction.
While the evidence is clear that employment is a strategy for reducing recidivism and helping to break cycles of poverty and homelessness; job seekers who have a criminal record face extensive systematic barriers to professional success. We believe that a business community who encourages its employees to innovate and to fail fast and often in order to succeed (most often with technology or products), should apply that same growth mindset to solve social and human-centered challenges.
Mistakes and failure are inextricably intertwined with the human condition. Everyone needs the opportunity to fail and make mistakes, to learn life lessons and to transform. Stifling that growth only perpetuates harm and fails to promote safe and healthy communities. We also believe that by subscribing to this approach we can build a fairer future of work that starts with fair chance employment and creating opportunities for all.
We also know that we can’t build this fairer future without the practice of giving fair chances every day of every month of every year. When Fair Chance is a verb, it makes inclusion and belonging and enriched communities so much easier. It’s desegregation and normalization of opportunity to move forward without being chained and defined by something in the past.
As we move out of April and into May, I invite everyone to remember that no one should be defined, or circumscribed, by the worst choice or decision they’ve ever made. Let’s give everyone a fair chance, all the time, and build a fairer future. Together.