Economic stability starts with the opportunity to work

by Jason Perkins-Cohen

This blog post is part of a group blogging event hosted by Living Cities and Meeting of the Minds about how cities could better connect their residents to economic opportunity.

We all want our cities to be safe places to live and work, but plans to increase public safety in metropolitan areas are failing our citizens. In misguided attempts to grow urban areas and their respective tax bases, policy and business leaders are shutting out huge swaths of the labor market through employment standards that all but exclude workers with a criminal record.

Employers naturally want to develop businesses that are safe for workers and customers. They also want to make hiring decisions that protect their financial security and minimize liability and loss. While these ideals are worthwhile, in their attempts to guarantee safety, many employers are evaluating a potential employee based, not on their merits as a worker, but on assumptions of a person’s future behavior. When employers automatically say “no” to people with criminal convictions, even minor ones, they are excluding a number of potentially great employees without any regard to a person’s skill set, attempts to improve their behavior or record of community contribution.

Without access to a job, residents who have even minor transgressions on their records are left with poor choices for securing income. Many look to friends for help, or struggle with sporadic low-wage employment. When those options run out, some turn to the underground, often illegal, economy. Keeping residents with a criminal background out of the workplace is not making our communities safer. In fact, these discriminatory policies are probably making our streets more dangerous.

Fortunately, things may be turning around.

In Baltimore a coalition of advocates and job seekers are pushing for public policies that give people with a criminal background an opportunity to work.

The group’s most recent success came on April 28 when the Baltimore City Council voted to “ban the box” on private sector job applications. The legislation expands existing statute by requiring private businesses with 10 or more employees to eliminate questions about previous arrests or convictions from initial job applications.

People who have served time for their crimes and paid their debt to society should be allowed the dignity of work and self-sufficiency, not a lifetime of social and economic disadvantage. By providing an opportunity to go to work, Baltimore leaders are promoting sustained economic growth and strong, healthy families.

This progressive step forward is great for our city, but we can’t stop here. Baltimore has several major public works projects, including $1 billion for school construction and another $2.6 billion for a new rail system on the horizon. Public works projects often include language that precludes or severely limits the hiring of people with criminal backgrounds. This arcane policy sets a bad example for the private sector and once again limits job opportunities. The city, when appropriate, must eliminate restrictions on hiring that prevent the qualified people from earning employment that supports their family and communities.

In addition to reducing barriers to jobs, we still need to improve access to training, education and skill building so people with criminal backgrounds are qualified for high-paying careers. Initiatives like Maryland’s Employment Advancement Right Now program help improve access by incentivizing businesses and training providers to work together and ensure low-skilled workers get the training they need to fulfill employment demand in growing industries. Allowing businesses to lead such training programs means we can cater job training to employer-specific needs while encouraging the hiring of people with diverse backgrounds, including those with criminal records.

We hope progress in Baltimore and other cities, will lead to broader reentry policies that truly promote public safety as well as strong and healthy communities without marginalizing potentially productive and employable citizens.

Jason Perkins-Cohen was a previous Executive Director for the Job Opportunities Task Force.

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