Every week in Rhode Island thousands of people are ushered through the court system, and every year nearly 20,000 will be released from prison. There are 30,000 people currently on probation, as we have one of the highest rates of government supervision in the nation. Over 100,000 Rhode Islanders have some manner of conviction on their records. The effects of those convictions can vary greatly.
A culture of criminal background checks has cast a cloud of discrimination upon many people and their families. HB 7760 and 7864 [concerning pre-interview criminal background checks] accept the fact that we live within one community- and we need to look carefully at policies that can go awry of their original intent regarding the safety of all.
I am in some ways typical of a person with a criminal record, particularly as we can only be evaluated on an individual basis. My past is terrible. The things I did two decades ago are despicable, and some have argued that I should continue to be punished and a life of homelessness or unemployment is appropriate. However, whether I lived out such an existence in prison or the community, I would become a burden on the state. On the one hand, my crimes are far more severe than most of the convicted; yet on the other hand, I bring more capacity to the table than most of the convicted.
In 2005 I was released from prison after 11 years, 8 months and restricted by an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet for one year. Prior to my release (as a pre-condition of getting parole), I was only able to find one job, and it took me two hours to get to work. After a few months, and with school starting soon, I sought a job closer to home in Woonsocket, at a Sears department store warehouse. I did not check the “box” asking if I had been “convicted of a felony in the past seven years.”
My interview at Sears went well. I submitted to a drug test, and upon the second interview I mentioned he would need to speak with my parole officer before taking the job. When we got into my very distant past, it was clear I was not getting the job despite my willingness to work hard for under $8 per hour. Others like me generally do not get that far, as many have been convicted in the past seven years. He may have been more comfortable if my history were less severe, yet if that lighter crime were more recent, I probably would not have made the interview.
Last summer I transferred my probation to New Orleans and looked for an apartment. I introduced myself as a Tulane Law Student. After going through the process, I asked if they discriminated against anyone. The agent assured me they did not, and requested my non-refundable $50 application fee. I asked about “people with convictions.” She did not know; they use a third party to do their background checks, but she was helpful enough to find their policy: Anyone with a felony conviction within the past seven years is barred from living in River Garden, one of the largest housing complexes in New Orleans. And anyone who ever had a crime of violence or property damage cannot live there. This is a common policy.
Last year we introduced the “Ban the Box” bill to This Committee. We have gained the support of many, as I expect you will continue to see in the legislative process. Some of you likely recall who came out in opposition: a lobbyist who represents background check companies. They could not provide any evidence of people with criminal records creating less effective workplaces, yet evidence of these policies decimating communities is overwhelming. They are likely familiar that their companies frequently violate the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which has standards for checking people’s information. Background checks have a consistent error rate, evidenced by the approximately 100,000 voters barred from the polls in Florida in 2000 because their names were similar to others who were barred by felony convictions.
Background check companies are blunt data miners who rarely recognize corrections or expungements, and certainly cannot assess the actual job applicant- whether 20 days or 20 years after conviction. This Legislature has held many hearings on expunging criminal records, even reforms proposed by the Attorney General. Those expungements are useless where background check companies do not update material. Their goal, understandably, is profit rather than safety.
When NY Governor Cuomo was Attorney General, he filed a series of discrimination suits against companies based on FCRA, Title VII, and New York anti-discrimination laws. He elicited millions of dollars in settlements and voluntary reforms in their hiring policies. Appropriate law in Rhode Island could provide guidance and protection for our own companies, allowing them to avoid the type of hiring policies that the EEOC has condemned. The EEOC is stepping up its enforcement, and recently negotiated a $3.1 million settlement with Pepsi, including a change to their hiring practice, as they had conducted blanket denials based on criminal records.
My prospects of returning to Rhode Island and raising my daughter are largely tied to what this legislature does in the coming years. Nearly a third of public school students have a parent who is under government supervision like myself; would I be barred from volunteering? Barred from school property? Will I be allowed to work based on my skills and efforts? Will I be allowed to rent or buy a home anywhere I like? This nation has been on a dangerous slope over recent decades, and if we do not reverse course we will have a caste society that forces me to create a different economy, a different school system, and a different community. This is not what I want, and I am confident that it is not what the people of Rhode Island want. Ultimately, we will all sink or swim together.
These comments were submitted to the House Labor Committee and entered into the record at its hearing on Wednesday on a bill that would make concerning pre-interview criminal background checks, or as it has been called “Ban the Box” because it would make it illegal to have a box on a job application asking if one has been convicted of a felony.