Second Chances

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A colleague of mine has a son with a criminal record. At the age of eighteen, he was arrested for going into someone’s open garage and stealing beer out of a refrigerator. He is in his twenties now, and has kept his nose clean ever since. My colleague wanted my advice on how he should handle this on a job applications.

I told her he should answer any questions about his criminal history openly and honestly. Anyone worth working for isn’t going to care. I know I wouldn’t hold some stupid teenage mistake against someone when making a hiring decision. As I see it, we’ve all done dumb things when we were young. He just happened to get caught. I would have more of a problem with it if he didn’t disclose the information during the hiring process, and it later came out in a background check.

A law currently making its way through the Minnesota legislature would make it illegal for private employers to ask about criminal histories on job applications. Employers would still be able to take criminal histories into consideration during the interview or job offer process. Proponents say that this would ensure that otherwise qualified candidates weren’t rejected outright based on a criminal history.

I’m all for second chances, but I can’t see how this law would make any difference whatsoever.

All it does is ensure that a candidate will get past the first hurdle in the hiring process. An employer can simply ask the criminal history question during a phone screening and get the information before the process goes any further. Perhaps the bill’s sponsors figure that if the candidate can get through the initial application screening and talk to someone, the candidate will be so impressive that criminal history will be overlooked. For those employers who mistakenly use this as a screening tool, however, it won’t matter what the candidate does or says later on in the process. And if lawmakers think they’ll catch employers acting illegally on these grounds, they’ve never hired anyone before. An employer can always think of an alternate excuse not to hire.

Does a criminal history even matter? Some say that we shouldn’t judge someone on the worst thing that person has ever done. I agree, and have always had the practice that a criminal record should not automatically disqualify an applicant. If someone has committed a crime and served their sentence, paid their fine, etc. then they have paid their debt to society, and it should not hang over their head forever. However, future performance can often be predicted by past performance. It can’t be denied that about a third of those who have spent time in prison end up reincarcerated within three years. The question is, do the one-third of non-repeat offenders have to suffer for the sake of repeat offenders?

This depends. A company I worked for once made an offer to a person for a position with a great amount of financial authority, contingent on a background check. Through the criminal background check, we learned he had a fraud conviction while working at a previous employer. He never brought this up during the interview process, and did not check the box provided on his application. We asked him to explain, and while there were extenuating circumstances, we had to rescind our offer. Even if we as employers wanted to hire him, how could we explain to our Board and our Examiners that we had given substantial financial authority to this person? If he committed fraud against us, it would be our jobs on the line.

In this same light, a trucking company would be justified in not hiring a person with a DUI conviction. A daycare center definitely should not hire a person convicted of possessing child pornography. Has the person been rehabilitated? Who knows. Can the employer take that chance. They could be held negligent if they did.

We also have to accept the fact that there are those who have committed heinous crimes, for whom redemption is not possible. With these hardened criminals, we just have to lock them up and throw away the key. I leave it up to experts to determine who those people are and act accordingly.

Still, many deserve a second chance. I’ve hired people with convictions that were in no way job related. Many worked out fine. For those that didn’t, it wasn’t because of their criminal record.

An employer who is doing a blanket ban on hiring those with criminal records is not doing a good job of evaluating candidates to find the best possible person for the position. And if the employer is banning these applicants outright, the proposed law eliminating a check box on an application isn’t going to change that.

If lawmakers truly want to address this issue, they need to invest the resources in order to ensure children receive the proper education, direction and upbringing that will prevent them from becoming convicted felons in the first place. They need to look at our mandatory sentencing laws and stop filling our prisons with people who have committed non-violent, drug related offenses. Then, when someone is incarcerated, they shouldn’t just give up on that person. They should partner with companies that have a shortage of skilled workers, and train them for those positions. Incentives could even be provided for employers who hire these candidates in order to lessen the risks. When compared to the cost to incarcerate people, the benefit of such programs would far outweigh the costs.

Sounds to good to be true? Maybe. Still, it would be worth a try. It is already being done in some places on a limited scale. But legislators would never go for a large-scale program of prisoner education. That is because, to too many law-abiding citizens, this would seem like a reward. Commit a crime, receive free job training. They think that when someone commits a crime, they need to be punished, not helped. But when we consider our overcrowded prisons, our recidivism rates, the cost of our criminal justice system, aren’t we all being punished?

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