‘Background Checks and Blocked Opportunities’: A Guide to Navigating Reentry

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More than 70 million Americans with criminal records are prevented from fully reintegrating with society because of the prevalence of background checks that affect their ability to get jobs, housing and education.

A guidebook published this month by the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity, offers them a roadmap for navigating the hurdles thrown up by local governments and other official bodies.

“A conviction history should be a history — not a life sentence,” the Institute says.

The  guide is also aimed at educating the public on the impact that mass criminalization policies have on the adult population once they have a conviction record.

The authors categorize the discrimination and civil consequences of prior conviction that can hurt a person’s future regarding employment, housing, and education — which are some of the main avenues needed to help someone get their life back on track after being released from a carceral facility.

Every person should be able to begin a better life free of “institutional and systemic barriers erected by background checks,” the guide said, noting that access to fair full-time employment, safe housing, and educational opportunities is more difficult when there is a documented criminal history.

An estimated 600,000 individuals return every year from correctional custody.  But the odds of successful reentry afre complicated by the fact that roughly 94 percent of employers and about 90 percent of landlords use background checks to evaluate applicants.

Blocked Opportunities

“Where the direct consequences of a conviction, like incarceration or fines, are set out at sentencing or in a plea deal, there are many consequences triggered by a conviction record that are known as civil consequences,” the report said.

In most cases, the civil consequences involve being denied background check clearance as a precursor to employment, housing, education, and professional licensing.

Not only can this harm a person’s livelihood and ability to prosper in reentry, but it can greatly impact someone’s parole or probation as some agreements stipulate that a person needs a stable living and work environment.

Blocked opportunities continue in the specialized work field, where someone needs an educational skill set or license to complete a job.

It’s estimated that a license to work is now required for one in four jobs, including many good-paying jobs that are in high demand industries, like healthcare, cosmetology, and contracting jobs.

However, under current laws, those jobs are largely out of reach for people with conviction records because of their inability to get proper training for a license.

“But it’s also important to keep sight of a more basic point: these issues are fundamentally about people,” researchers from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) say in a study cited by the John Jay College researchers.

“When a person with a record is not permitted — as a matter of public policy — to reach their full potential, real and lasting consequences follow for individuals, families, and entire communities.”

Know Your Rights

As part of the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity guide, the authors note that it’s important for individuals with a conviction record to know their rights, both on the federal and state level.

In terms of federal background check laws, the authors of the guide note that if your background is being checked through a third-party company, you must provide consent to the background check in writing, and that the company must provide you with a summary of your rights.

Moreover, if an employer or a housing provider rejects you based on your conviction history, they must provide you with a notice with information about your rights to dispute the results.

The authors note that each state will have different background check laws — some of which are not well known to the public. For example, under the New York City Fair Chance Act, most employers cannot complete a background check or ask questions about someone’s criminal past until they’ve made a conditional job offer.

It’s staying abreast of rights like these, the authors note, that can help someone feel more confident going into a situation where their conviction record is being accessed.

Conviction Record Reforms Allow for Equal Opportunity 

Prominent advocates, including the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity, have been working with legislation across the country to end the use of background checks.

Thankfully, the authors write, there has been substantial change in the past few years.

In 2017, Seattle passed an ordinance that prevents landlords from “unfairly denying applicants housing” based on their conviction history. Following this landmark decision, several cities have followed suit with New York City advocates in tow urging City Council members to complete a similar law.

Moreover, 36 states and over 150 cities and counties have adopted fair hiring policies under what is widely known as “ban the box” — omitting the question on job applications that ask about an individual’s arrest record.

However, a few states like Texas, Montana, New Hampshire, and Alabama don’t have any laws or regulations on the consideration of a criminal record for employment or occupational licensing applications, a recent Collateral Consequences Resource Center study concluded. 

See Also: Illinois, California Lead 50-State Ranking of Reentry Progress

Overall, researchers at the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity write that it’s common for anyone to feel nervous or stigmatized when going through a background check, and that preparing in advance can help the experience feel less intimidating.

The researchers also note that going into any scenario knowing your rights will greatly help a person’s integrity shine through instead of the focus being on the history they’ve left behind.

“We hope this guide will become obsolete as more laws are passed to prohibit records-based discrimination and we dismantle other types of civil consequences of conviction records,” the report concludes.

“Until then, we hope it will be useful.”

The John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity (the Institute), formerly known as the Prisoner Reentry Institute, is a center of research and action at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY, where researchers are committed to providing opportunities and information for people to live successfully after involvement with the criminal legal system.

The full guide can be accessed here.

Additional Reading: COVID-19 Intensifies Reentry For Better or Worse: Report

 Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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