Once Locked Up, Now Locked Out of Jobs and College

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

During a recent visit to a federal court house in Brooklyn to call for an expansion of prison diversion programs, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recalled his days as a circuit court judge.  Many of the young people who streamed into his courtroom back then were black and Latino males. And more than a few were making repeat appearances in his courtroom.

Data shows that black and Latino youth are much more likely to be readmitted to jail within one year of their release. These young people, a Princeton University study showed, face serious barriers to employment; a criminal record reduces positive responses from employers by about 35 percent for white applicants and 57 percent for black applicants. The same study found that black and Latino applicants with no criminal convictions whatsoever fared no better as job seekers than a white applicant just released from prison.

Our criminal justice policies still permit – and even encourage – overlapping systems of racial and economic oppression to exist. These policies perpetuate the separation of large segments of our community from the workforce, significantly raising the odds that these young men will never have any real opportunity to successfully re-integrate back into society after paying for their crimes.

These effects are not lost on Mr. Holder, or indeed on many officials across the country who are charged with enforcing our nation’s criminal laws.  “We will never, as a nation, be able to incarcerate our way to better outcomes, a stronger nation or a brighter future. Instead, we need to make smart choices,” Holder said in an October 31st New York Times article.

172,000 Disconnected Youth in NYC

Holder is absolutely right.   As a society we have to do a better job of helping our young men make smart decisions. At the same time, we need policymakers, practitioners, employers, educators, philanthropists and others who shape our criminal justice system to make smart choices and create real structural change.   

Here in New York City there are 172,000 disconnected youth,  primarily African-American and Latino young men ages 18-24 who are neither working nor in school.  Because these young men are not working, they cannot support themselves or contribute to their families’ economic wellbeing.  They also cannot contribute to the local economy by spending disposable income and generating tax revenues.

The more troublesome part of this problem, however, is that these young men just are not connecting with the resources, development programs, and educational and civic institutions that could help them create a foundation for long-term employment and a true place in helping better our great City.

While issues of poverty, race, discrimination and social exclusion can further complicate the prospects for these young men, those with criminal justice involvement have by far the greatest challenges.

AG Reviews College Admission Practices

Last year education and reentry advocates alerted the New York Attorney General’s Office that admissions policies at some private colleges and universities required applicants to disclose whether they had been arrested or detained, even when those arrests did not result in criminal convictions. This led to a review that produced an agreement with St John’s University, Dowling College and Five Towns College to refrain from asking applicants about irrelevant information regarding contacts with the criminal justice system.

As  State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman aptly pointed out, such policies have a detrimental impact on African-American and Latino applicants who are much more likely to be stopped, detained and arrested for minor offenses than their white counterparts. But the real worry is that college and university exclusionary policies can have a chilling effect on the overall number of African-American and Latino men pursing higher education. Under the agreement, these schools will not ask about sealed records, arrests or other law enforcement contacts that did not lead to a criminal conviction, and will  consider prior convictions only to the extent they are relevant to public safety or some aspect of the institution’s academic program.

This is a wonderful first step, and we very much hope that other colleges and universities follow suit.  In doing so they may avoid engaging in the sort of inadvertent race discrimination that keeps our young men from realizing their promise through higher education.

Fair Chance Act

Of the efforts to address barriers to re-entry, none is more urgent than legislation before the City Council that would prevent employers from asking about a criminal history until they have decided that an applicant has the qualifications for the job and is the person that they want to hire. The “Fair Chance Act” creates a level playing field for people with criminal records at the beginning of the hiring process. And the law will prevent businesses from circumventing existing state law that prohibits employment discrimination based solely on a criminal record.

More than 27,000 people are released from jails and prisons in New York each year looking to restart their lives. Let’s give them a real chance to do that, and in the process to have a meaningful chance to come home and be vibrant, contributing members of society.  By bringing down barriers to jobs and higher education we can reduce recidivism, transform lives and help stop the racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system from creating further collateral damage.


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