Op-Ed

Arrest record shouldn’t be a barrier to employment

TNS

No Irish need apply.” “No Blacks, Jews or Mexicans.” Such offensive signs have long since disappeared from storefront windows. Blatant employment discrimination no longer is tolerated in the United States. But discriminatory barriers to employment still exist.

For almost a third of Americans, getting past the front page of a job application has become impossible. Based on personal information applicants are asked to provide, the opportunity for some to compete is lost.

Gainful employment in the mainstream economy is effectively denied to these citizens. Why?

More than 70 million Americans have an arrest record, according to a Wall Street Journal review of the FBI database. Every day in this country, between 10,000 and 12,000 people are arrested. When they are required to answer Yes to a question about an arrest record, their application might be rejected or moved to the bottom of the pile. Even when charges are dropped, an arrest record can cause economic harm for life.

This exacerbates the rate of unemployment and underemployment, and makes the income gap that defines our community ever more rigid.

As chairman of the Miami-Dade Commission, I have made it a priority to focus on income inequality in the county. Increasing employment opportunities for people who have been marginalized in society is critical to reducing income disparity. The Chairman’s Council for Prosperity Initiatives, a policy group I established with my commission colleagues Barbara Jordan and Daniella Levine Cava, has been exploring ways close this gap by removing unnecessary barriers to employment, housing and transportation.

We support policies that let everyone have a fair opportunity to live productively. An inconsequential arrest should not result in a lifetime of economic hardship. To diminish the systemic discrimination against this substantial demographic, job applications and hiring processes need to be revised to allow applicants to demonstrate their skills and qualifications — before being asked about criminal history.

I have introduced an ordinance, along with my colleagues on the Council for Prosperity Initiatives, that would “ban the box” on county job applications, thereby eliminating up-front questions about criminal history. Hiring managers would be prevented from asking such questions until after applicants demonstrate their qualifications and a conditional offer of employment is made. Knowing a candidate’s qualifications, employers can make a fair assessment of the relevance of any criminal history that may be revealed in a background check.

The ordinance requires the county to consider the nature of the conviction, the length of time since the conviction and whether it affects the candidate’s ability to do the job. It also allows candidates an opportunity to respond to the record with an explanation or evidence of rehabilitation. The best fit for the job may, in fact, be the applicant with an adverse incident in the past.

The Chairman’s Council for Prosperity Initiatives hopes that this policy will encourage more applicants to seek gainful employment. Our intent is to simply level the playing field and create a more-competitive environment.

As a society, we are all better off when our residents participate in the local economy at their highest potential. Both unemployment and underemployment erode the human spirit. Any systemic impediments that prevent an individual from sharing talents and skills in the workplace should be removed. This measure will open the door of opportunity for a substantial segment of our population.

This pending legislation does not require employers in Miami-Dade County to “ban the box” on job applications, only the county itself. However, on behalf of the Chairman’s Council for Prosperity Initiatives, I do encourage all employers in Miami-Dade County to consider this simple, but powerful, change on their job applications.

Jean Monestime chairs the Miami-Dade County Commission, where he represents District 2.

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