Notes on Kamp: Easing the Stigma
Fair Chance ordinance is a good start in helping people with criminal records rejoin society
This week is the culmination of over a year's worth of effort by criminal justice reform advocates to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal records. If Council Member Greg Casar's Fair Chance Hiring resolution passes, private employers will have to wait until a conditional offer of employment has been made before asking about or considering a job applicant's criminal history.
To some, this seems like an unfair burden on businesses: Surely whether a person has a criminal record is worth taking into account when considering their fitness for employment. However, the problem is that, in practice, when someone checks the criminal history box on an application, that application is often automatically removed from consideration. In a competitive job market, it's an easy way of sorting.
More importantly, having a criminal record continues to carry enormous stigma in this country. We thoughtlessly divide ourselves into criminals and law-abiding citizens, choosing to forget that people are rarely so easily categorized. In some instances, the crimes for which people have been convicted are things that – if we're being honest – many people do without getting caught, including using drugs and driving drunk. Yet once a person has been arrested, they're suddenly damaged goods.
We all too frequently overlook the role our justice system plays in reinforcing racial and economic inequality. Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and they disproportionately receive harsher sentences. Poor people who can't afford to post bail or hire lawyers are more likely to accept plea bargains that leave them with a conviction than those who can afford to fight a charge. In a city where racial and economic inequality is especially stark, we need to do everything we can to bridge the divide.
Yet the idea of having to consider people with criminal records for jobs has whipped some into a tizzy. The suggestion invariably leads to those opposed tossing out hypotheticals that involve sex offenders and unaccompanied women. Let's leave aside the fact that even people who commit sex crimes and serve their time deserve to be able to rejoin society, and remember that the resolution does not force anyone to hire people with criminal records, only to give them the chance to move through the application process, and that jobs where a conviction is relevant to the position will be exempted from the requirement.
Even if the ordinance passes, it will only do so much. Some employers will wind up finding qualified workers that they wouldn't have otherwise considered, but there will continue to be many people who find themselves locked out of the job market. In order for people to be able to find work, they need to have skills that qualify them for jobs. Jails and prisons have moved away from providing programming for inmates that prepares them for re-entry (although the Travis County Sheriff's Office has done some commendable work in that area). Austin needs to do more to make sure that everyone who wants a job has the opportunity to develop the skills to get a job.
But it will be a start. If nothing else, the work that has already gone into advocating for the ordinance has contributed to and amplified a necessary discussion about incarceration and its aftereffects. Hopefully, this discussion will turn to other forms of discrimination, including the difficulty people with criminal records have in finding safe, affordable housing. Perhaps it will include the deplorable conditions of our jails and prisons. Maybe it will lead us to consider alternatives to incarceration. And it will certainly send a message to people like Jacqueline Conn, who is a victim of employment discrimination because of her criminal record and has been a consistent advocate for the resolution. At a press conference Tuesday, Conn said that she knew that she would be discriminated against when she got out of prison, and that "no one would care." The ordinance, she said, is her chance to "feel like a human again."