Will the American Jobs Plan Include Us?

May 4, 2021

As President Biden’s American Jobs Plan moves through what promises to be a protracted debate in Congress, there is a question that has not yet received much attention but that is critical to the country’s post-COVID recovery.  That is, how can the Plan’s very ambitious goal of “building back better” be met without the active participation of 77 million people of working age?  That is how many of us have conviction histories.  And by 2030, we will number 100 million.  Economic recovery must include us or it won’t work.

Every year 600,000 adults leave prison and reenter a society that will not employ us.  Decades of punitive laws have led to the piling up of “collateral consequences” that last a lifetime, barring us not only from jobs but from housing and educational opportunities.  We have paid our debt to society with our liberty, but if you have a fifteen year old felony you can be barred from working in healthcare, transportation, education and finance. If you have entrepreneurial hopes and dreams, there are more than 15,000 laws on the books that bar you from getting the necessary license to practice your chosen profession.    The American Jobs Plan will create tremendous opportunities in new fields and technologies, but unless bold changes are made by both government and the private sector, many of us will be left out and, as a consequence, too many of those new positions will remain vacant.

On March 31st President Biden issued a proclamation declaring April “Second Chance Month.”  He said, “Too many individuals face unfair legal and practical barriers to reentry.  The reentry process is complicated in the best of times, and is even more so with the additional difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.  We must remove these barriers.”  We could not agree more!  The barriers are high and they are numerous and they are not distributed evenly across the working population.  Because of the racial bias that infects the criminal legal system from arrest through sentencing and beyond, Black and brown returning citizens face a double hurdle: criminal records discrimination on top of ordinary racial discrimination.  The Administration’s pledge to combat systemic racism cannot be realized unless we deal with the problem of criminal records discrimination.

A major obstacle to successful reentry has been the rapid growth of the commercial database industry.  Before the arrival of the internet, individual criminal records were too time consuming and expensive for most employers to access, but the internet has changed that.  ChoicePoint, which is one of the largest companies, conducts more than 10 million background checks annually for some of the country’s largest employers. According to a survey by the Society of Human Resources Management, the largest association of human resources personnel, 92 percent of their members, mostly large employers, perform criminal background checks on job candidates.

For far too many employers, a conviction history leads to an automatic rejection. This is based on the false belief that we are undesirable employees when in fact, recent studies and real world experience show that this stereotype is just that—a stereotype.   Both of us run organizations that work to improve the ability of people with conviction histories to reintegrate into society and we have seen with our own eyes our participants’ commitment to achieving long term economic stability.   People with conviction histories are as highly motivated as anyone else to do a good job, whether as an employee, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur.

Since the passage of the Second Chance Act in 2007 authorized the funding of reentry programs, most of the resources have gone to training and job readiness programs.  But those programs don’t accomplish much if no one will hire us. Once passed, the American Jobs Plan will give the nation a chance to confront and correct one of the worst consequences of decades of mass incarceration.  This is the moment when we, as a nation, can finally begin to dismantle the barriers that have kept so many of our people on the edge of homelessness and hopelessness.  As a first step towards an inclusive recovery we can revive the Fair Chance Business Pledge started by President Obama in 2016 after his Administration consulted with leaders of the formerly incarcerated people’s movement.

The Fair Chance Business Pledge was a call-to-action for the private sector to eliminate barriers for those with a conviction record.  At its outset, signers included some of the largest companies in America, including American Airlines, The Coca-Cola Company, Facebook, and Starbucks.  By the time Obama left office more than 500 companies had signed on.  Along with reviving the Pledge, the business community needs sector-specific roadmaps for reforming the policies and practices that have for so long shut us out. Those of us who have personally experienced the challenges of reentry will gladly offer our time and expertise to ensure that America’s recovery really is inclusive.

Susan Mason is co-founder and executive director of What’s Next – Washington.

Tracey Syphax is Chief Operating Officer of Phax Group Construction & Design LLC. and co-founder of Reentry Ventures.

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