Criminal record? Don't apply

Here's a staggering statistic: One in four U.S. adults has a criminal record -- that's 65 million people, according to the National Employment Law Project which issued a report last week on the topic of criminal background checks. The report's title: "65 Million `Need Not Apply' -- The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment."

In some cases, and for some companies, that means one out of four Americans, shouldn't bother to apply for any job at any time. Period. Some companies say they won't hire anyone with any felony or even a misdemeanor, regardless of the work, even if the jobs require little in the way of public contact. 

The report is not suggesting that employers open their doors to any one -- convictions can and do matter when they relate to the job, or when they are recent. Obviously when jobs involve care of the vulnerable, including children and the elderly, a criminal past can be a red flag. A background in theft or fraud may warrant caution when hiring someone who will be handling money or sensitive information. But some employers also will turn aside people who have had any contact with the law, even if charges are dropped. 

Today, Philadelphia City Council will likely vote to pass a "ban-the-box" ordinance. The box in question is the box on applications that indicates if candidates have a criminal background. Under the city ordinance, most employers would not be able to try to discover a criminal background until after the first interview. You can learn more by reading my Philadelphia Inquirer story. If you click here, you can read an earlier version of the bill. Since this version, more types of businesses have been excluded from its provisions.

Other cities have similar ordinances, but their ordinances usually apply only to city hiring practices or to the practices of employers doing business with the city. Philadelphia's extends to nearly all private employers. Some ordinances require that a conditional offer be made before a background can be checks. Most of these ordinances have been passed in the last two or three years.

"For many companies," the report says, "criminal background checks are a means to determine the safety and security risk a prospective or current employee poses on the job." 

But, the report says, a major study found that 18-year-olds who were arrested had the same risk of being arrested as someone with no record after 3.8 years had passed since a burglary arrest, 4.3 years for aggravated assault and 7.7 years for robbery.