Marilyn Reyes Scales wishes she could buy Christmas gifts for her two daughters, ages 13 and 16. But the income the 52-year old Bronx single mother brings home from two part-time jobs is barely enough to cover the rent on her apartment, let alone gifts. Food stamps help, but what she really wants is a full-time job.
Unfortunately for Ms. Scales, with each job application she must confront her criminal past. That includes prior convictions for the sale and possession of drugs, the most recent in 1995. Even though she has been drug-free for 19 years, served her time, and regularly attends support groups for people recovering from addiction, Ms. Scales’ quest for a job gets no further than the question “have you ever been convicted of a crime”? Checking the box “yes” all but guarantees she is passed over, even though New York law currently prohibits denying people work just because they have a record.
“I paid my debt. It should be over,” said Ms. Scales, who has been turned down for full-time positions on a regular basis since 2010. She currently works part-time for Vocal-NY as an organizer and is a trainer for New York Harm Reduction Education, Inc. “Everyone makes mistakes. You may not have a criminal record as a result, but you still make mistakes. When do we stop judging people on their past?”
But there may be good news for Ms. Scales, and others like her, who are looking for the opportunity to support themselves and their families, and move on from past mistakes.
NYC FAIR CHANCE ACT
The New York City Council is poised to make New York the latest to enact a law requiring employers, public and private, to first make a conditional job offer before asking a job applicant about his or her conviction history or conducting a background check inquiry.
Earlier this month, the “Fair Chance Act” cleared a committee vote, thereby setting up action on the bill by the full Council in early 2015. The bill, which has widespread support and is backed by 36 Council sponsors, will ensure that all public and private sector employers consider job applicants based on their skills, experience and qualifications before determining whether their conviction history is relevant.
We owe them, and ourselves, no less than this. The Fair Chance Act does not force employers to hire people with criminal records or prevent them from running criminal background checks. Instead, the law creates an even playing field for all job seekers, and removes barriers to employment for people who are qualified to work. It will also serve to deter those businesses that currently circumvent existing state law prohibiting employment discrimination based on a person’s criminal record.
EMPLOYMENT LOWERS RECIDIVISM
About 27,000 people are released from New York’s jails and prisons every year. They become part of the roughly five million New Yorkers with a criminal record, disproportionately people of color. The systematic exclusion of these individuals from employment increases poverty and recidivism and disproportionately harms communities of color, and all but ensures that our society will continue to punish them long after they have paid their debt to society.
According to the City’ Center for Employment Opportunities, most people are unemployed upon release from prison and 60 percent remain unemployed one year after release. If and when they find employers willing to hire them, they can expect to work approximately nine fewer weeks each year, earn less money, and have limited economic and geographic mobility.
Measures like the Fair Chance Act help reverse this trend, and in the process help rebuild our communities through access to jobs, second chances to support families, reinvigorated community ties and reduced anti-social behavior. The city’s economy stands to benefit as well by having more people working and paying taxes.
Passage of the law cannot happen soon enough for Marilyn Scales.
“My goal is to work full-time so I can help my children,” she said. “This shouldn’t be too much for anyone to ask.”