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Reducing Collateral Sanctions as Part of Ohio Criminal-justice Reform Would Be a Boon to Employers, Too: Brad Whitehead and Amy Hanauer (Opinion)

Every day in our community, workforce agencies see people who want to work and have skills to offer but can’t get jobs. At the same time, employers often say they can’t find workers for openings they have. What gives? 

Real barriers, such as a lack of access to quality, affordable child care and difficult commutes, prevent people from getting good jobs and shrink the hiring pool for businesses. But one of the biggest obstacles to securing employment is a past conviction. Ohio’s state prison population has tripled over the last 35 years, leaving a lot more potential employees with a record. These past offenses then act like a de facto life sentence, foreclosing employment opportunities due to hiring practices.

Of course, some convictions do not square with certain occupations (think money fraud and a bank); however, one-size-fits-all approaches can have sweeping effects.

This is unfortunate because research suggests that people with records typically perform in jobs at or above the level of those without records. A recent study found that individuals with records had less turnover, and in a survey of more than 500 managers, 82 percent said those with records performed similarly or better.

Addressing this barrier is not only good civics, but also good business. Leaders are increasingly recognizing this reality, but they haven’t yet effectively dismantled the roadblock, at least in part because our community hasn’t understood just how pervasive it is. Until now.

New research conducted by Policy Matters Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, sponsored by the Fund for Our Economic Future, shows that about 850 state laws called collateral sanctions restrict access to a quarter of Ohio jobs for nearly 1 million residents with felony convictions who have already served their time.

The jobs blocked can be good ones. Our analysis shows they pay better and are growing at twice the rate of other Ohio jobs. People are also blocked from some first-rung jobs that could help them get a toehold in the labor market. Many food service, janitorial, commercial driving, and public sector jobs have these sanctions. (Read the full report at https://tinyurl.com/ychsmuvl.)

The typical Ohioan out of work after serving time for a felony conviction lost $36,479 in wages in 2017. That amounts to roughly $3.4 billion in lost wages across the state that year.

These short-sighted policies affect all Ohioans, black, white and brown. But African-Americans are disproportionately harmed. Black Ohioans are six times more likely to have a felony conviction than white Ohioans. This is no surprise: Black residents are treated more severely at every step in the criminal justice process than white residents. Black community members are more likely to be stopped, arrested, charged, detained pre-trial, convicted, and given long sentences, even when circumstances are similar, according to a Vincent Institute of Justice brief issued last year.

Limiting prospects for Ohioans with convictions hurts workers, hurts businesses, and hurts our economy. It may even undermine the very safety that collateral sanctions seek to protect. Limiting legitimate work opportunities can push people to re-offend.

Happily, these barriers are being acknowledged in regional discussions about how to find skilled employees. The next step is implementing more sensible hiring policies and practices.

The main policy fix is to eliminate excessive, arbitrary collateral sanctions that prevent people from getting licensed or hired for 1.3 million of the jobs in our state. Instead, we should keep targeted provisions that make sense and that account for time since conviction and demonstrated recovery.

We should “ban the box” requiring applicants to list criminal convictions in applications. Managers can consider these factors later, but it makes little sense to unilaterally eliminate people before they’ve had a chance to compete. Ohio already does this for public jobs; we should ask private employers to do the same. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers guidelines employers can use to do this in a smart, safe way. The fact that many of the sanctions are discretionary means enormous strides in equity and competitiveness can be made without compromising public safety.

In Columbus, lawmakers are considering proposals to reform our criminal justice system. We applaud that and encourage them to advance a proposal that will substantially reduce our overinflated prison population. But it’s also essential that we let people rejoin our economy when they get out. When we don’t, firms lose earnings potential, the state economy is smaller, and communities are left less safe.

Let’s bring down the barriers we’ve created to earning a living for our neighbors who made a past mistake.

Brad Whitehead is president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, an alliance of more than 40 local and national funders. Amy Hanuaer is executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive think tank based in Cleveland.