March 25, 2019, Claudia De Palma - The Philadelphia Inquirer
Poverty in Philadelphia is tenacious. Despite a growing population and economy, Philadelphia is still the poorest of the country’s 10 largest cities, with a poverty rate stuck at 26 percent. Any effort to solve this problem must include a class of Philadelphians who are often ignored: the city’s estimated 400,000 adult residents with criminal records.
Finding living-wage employment is a critical step toward economic stability. For Philadelphians with criminal records, however, this door out of poverty is often slammed shut. Criminal background checks have become a ubiquitous part of the job application process. According to a 2012 survey, 86 percent of employers use background checks on at least some candidates.
Once an employer learns of a criminal history — even an arrest without a conviction — many just move on to other applicants. According to a 2002 survey, more than 60 percent of employers said they probably would not hire an applicant with any criminal background. Another study found that having a criminal record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent. Qualified applicants can find themselves excluded from job opportunities based on mistakes they made decades ago and for which they have already paid their debt to society.
This bias is reflected in the staggering 27 percent national unemployment rate among returning citizens, a rate, as one recent study remarked, that is “substantially higher than even the worst years of the Great Depression.” The economic impact of this unemployment is especially stark for black and Latino workers. African Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely.
Research suggests that employer concerns about hiring individuals with criminal records are often unfounded. Employers tend to overestimate the predictive link between an applicant’s criminal history and ability to succeed in a job. In fact, the ACLU reported in 2017 that studies show employees with records stay at jobs longer and are more highly motivated to perform than employees without records.