BROWNFELD: The main offender
New legislation must make it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs
Do you ever think about what happens on the very last day of a person’s prison sentence? We often think that the criminal justice process starts with a crime, the police arrive, they arrest someone, the person is found guilty, sent to prison and done. However, the reality is that this process does not truly end until the prisoner comes back home. In fact, 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released from incarceration. So, on that last day of incarceration, as a prisoner waves goodbye to prison and hello to society, what will he find? What is in store for the next chapter of life? Unfortunately, the return to society for most prisoners is a rocky road that tends to lead back to prison again. In Virginia, 53.9 percent of ex-offenders will be rearrested within three years of release. This is an expensive pattern as it costs $57.14 a day to house a prisoner in the already overcrowded Charlottesville/Albemarle jail. Why is it that prisoners fall into this vicious cycle of recidivism? Why don’t they just go out and find jobs and live honest lives? If only it were that easy.
Ex-offenders face the ultimate catch-22 when they attempt to join the workforce. On the one hand, there is strong evidence that finding stable employment is a critical component of staying out of prison. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for ex-offenders to actually attain employment. A study conducted in the U.S. found that only 12.5 percent of employers would definitely offer a job to someone with a criminal history. This goes hand in hand with the startling fact that 75 percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed for a year after being released from prison. This high level of unemployment is directly related to the numerous roadblocks that ex-offenders face when they go out and apply for jobs.
The challenges begin when the ex-offender puts pen to paper on the job application. Most job applications have a question that says, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Time and time again, the ex-offender checks the box “Yes” and his or her application is tossed in the trash before an interview or any further consideration by the employer. It is easy to imagine an ex-offender losing hope as he or she goes from one business to the next, filling out applications and never hearing back. How can we ask ex-offenders to change their lives and get jobs if we actually are unwilling to even consider the idea of hiring them?
Delegate Rob Krupicka, a University alumnus, has taken a step in the right direction by filing a new bill for the upcoming session of the Virginia General Assembly that will remove the questions about criminal history from Virginia state job applications. Krupicka’s bill follows the national movement, known as “ban the box,” referring to the “Yes” box that is placed after asking if a person has ever been convicted of a crime. In fact, nine states and more than 50 cities have already removed questions regarding criminal history from job applications. While this will apply to Virginia state government jobs, Krupicka’s bill will not apply to “sensitive” jobs like police officers. Additionally, the intent of the bill is not to leave the employer completely in the dark about an applicant’s past, but simply to delay the discussion of criminal history until a later portion of the application process. The goal of this bill is simply to give a fighting chance to the committed ex-offenders who truly do want to change their lives. If this question about criminal history is removed from job applications, more ex-offenders will be given interviews, where their potential can be assessed using various metrics, beyond the answer to one simply question. Ideally, this would lead to more jobs for the ex-offender population. The end result would be beneficial not only for the ex-offender, but for society as well. We, as citizens of Virginia, have an opportunity to change the cycle of recidivism, decrease the tax burden caused by prison costs, and increase employment rates among ex-offenders by supporting Delegate Krupicka’s bill.
Burke Brownfeld is a former Alexandria police officer and citizen of Virginia.