According to recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of every 30 Americans is either currently in jail or on parole, and one out of every five Americans has spent time behind bars. When considered in the context of the U.S. economy, the implications are staggering. And that’s just on the national scale; in California, the numbers may be even higher. According to Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, 1 in 4 Californians have a criminal record of some kind, a record which can make it very difficult to find work post-incarceration.
So it comes as no surprise that an effort has been made to combat the negative economic effects of a criminal record when it comes to finding a job. Through an effort led by Assemblyman Dickinson, California has recently passed a bill into law that would require state and municipal governments to evaluate candidates for a job based on merit before asking whether or not they have been convicted of a crime. The law places an admirable emphasis on evaluations for positions based on merit, while also acknowledging the poor economic situation throughout the country and the need to get people back to work.
The law also accounts for the harsh realities of unemployment. Recently released prisoners who are unable to find work because of their past are most likely to become beneficiaries of government subsidized programs like Medicaid or food stamps. If left unchecked, that reality that will only have further negative results for California’s economy and for the U.S. economy at large. The U.S. currently has the largest prison population in the world, topping much more heavily populated countries like China, and that population continues to grow.
Despite the clearly positive effects of the law for those that stand to gain from it, its detractors are not in short supply. The League of California Cities has chosen to oppose the law, arguing that certain activities for which the local governments hire do in fact require an up front inquiry into whether a candidate has a criminal record. The League cites positions that require an employee to handle taxpayer money, to deal with sensitive information, and which require the employee to enter private property without notice to the owner. Despite the sensitivity of some of these issues, the bill was passed into law.
Despite the clear victory for job seekers, there remain substantial hurdles to employment post-incarceration. While the law effectively “bans the box” that convicts must check at the outset of the application process, it does not prohibit government authorities from asking the question at some later point in the screening process. Thus, those with criminal records can still face barriers to entry when applying for government jobs due to the criminal record. That said, the passage of the law is an important victory for those trying to put their criminal record behind them, and will potentially have positive implications for California’s economy.