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Widespread Use of Criminal Background Checks in the Information Age

| May 18, 2011

In March, the National Employment Law Project released a report entitled 65 Million “Need Not Apply”: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment. According to the report, almost 65 million Americans (about one in five) have some type of criminal record, whether for an arrest or a conviction. And, for many of those 65 million Americans who are seeking employment, the hiring process can be very difficult as employers are often leery of candidates with a criminal history.

A recent New York Times article tells the story of Ayanna Spikes, a 38-year old University of California-Berkeley graduate who was arrested in 1997 for robbing a video store.  While Ms. Spikes has not had any further brushes with the law in the last 14 years, she reports that she has been turned down for more than a dozen jobs since finishing college after employers ran a criminal background check.  The Times reports that like Ms. Spikes, others are turned away after having been “convicted of minor offenses, or of crimes that appear to have little relevance to the jobs they are seeking.”

The Internet has made performing these criminal background checks a lot easier, as potential employers no longer have to perform a physical search of court records. And according to this survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 90% of the companies surveyed claim to run checks on employees. Yet, as Adam Klein, an attorney with Outten & Golden argues, “we’re spending a tremendous amount of money incarcerating people and then creating a system where it’s almost impossible for them to find gainful employment.”

Understandably, many employers believe that hiring someone with a criminal record may not be in their best interest. However, while recidivism studies show that nearly a third of offenders return to jail within three years, a number of “redemption” studies have demonstrated that recidivism declines steadily with time clean. Because the “risk that an ex-offender will be re-arrested decreases substantially over time,” eventually those offenders become indistinguishable from someone of the same age with no record. Thus, for people like Ms. Spikes, criminal background checks often serve as an unnecessary barrier to entry.

Criminal background checks serve an important purpose, and it is important to remember that employers can be liable if they fail to screen an employee who later harms someone. Yet, in light of available redemption statistics, reforming the way in which criminal background checks are used may be in order.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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