In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned jobs 19 times, repeating it more than any other word with any policy implications. “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999,” he said in his opening remarks. Shortly thereafter, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) delivered the GOP rebuttal, using the word at nearly twice the rate, in admittedly less rosy terms.
Focusing on jobs in political speeches isn’t news. After all, the unemployment rate tends to dictate the terms of a campaign and the outcome of an election. But while the State of the Union from both party leaders tackled employment with nods to education, technology and globalization, they ignored a lesser-known issue haunting the job prospects of at least 70 million Americans: criminal records.
According to the National Employment Law Project, one out of every four adult Americans has a criminal record, a broad term covering everything from violent crime to arrest without a conviction. But for most employers, the devil isn’t in the details—simply having a criminal record can often be enough to have your resume dismissed by employers, leaving you without options to earn a stable income.
The result is that a significant chunk of working-age adults, particularly communities of color, are barred—by law or stigma—from contributing to the economy.
“We are talking about a large number of people who were never even incarcerated – they received a sentence of probation or had a mere arrest,” says Gretchen Slusser, executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a Chicago-based organization that provides free legal assistance for people with criminal records. “These are people who have actually never left society, but suffer the same consequences as somebody who was in prison for 20 years.”
According to the American Bar Association, there are 38,000 collateral consequences that accompany a criminal record. Work in certain sectors, like education and healthcare, is often off limits. Most public housing forbids residency for anyone with a criminal record. And a record can also make it impossible to receive food stamps.
Last year, a Stanford University study sought to put a dollar value to the impact of these limitations. The study found that a criminal record led to $5,760 in forgone benefits to the community annually, primarily through lost earnings and tax revenue. Extrapolated across the tens of millions of Americans with records, their findings suggest billions of dollars being locked out of the economy—a finding supported by a similar 2008 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research.
In recent years, nonprofits, think tanks and local governments have been able to move the needle on the issue, shedding light on how these records hurt the economy and hinder people’s ability to lead stable professional and personal lives. Indeed, over the last five years, 155 pieces of legislation have been passed in 41 states and Washington, D.C. that provide various forms of criminal records relief—much of it under the banner of “Ban the Box,” a reference to the box on job applications that asks about an applicant's criminal history.
In Chicago, CGLA has led the charge as the city’s only major provider of criminal records relief—a process that’s proven to be the only way to hurdle barriers standing in the way of employment.
On the ground, a volunteer workforce of lawyers provides free legal assistance to people with criminal records. With their expertise, people can expunge non-convictions from their records, seal certain conviction records from employers, or earn certificates of good conduct as legal proof that a conviction isn’t an indictment of poor character.
“They want something to come off their record because they can’t get a job or they’re underemployed,” says Mary Jo Quinn, assistant general counsel at Allstate, a regular volunteer and member of the advisory board at CGLA. “Every person that I talk to, made me realize that they were not folks looking for a handout. Every person wants a job. And the reason they want a job is to make their life and their family’s lives better."
“It just killed me that one mistake was haunting somebody for so long. So it was the second chance opportunity that drew me into it.”
Through this work over the years, CGLA’s gathered reams of data that have helped influence the state to pass laws to require companies to see people as people, rather than simply see the criminal record. Thanks in part to their providing the government with data, Illinois expanded sealing of records to seven more felonies last year.
“The data is the key to all of it,” says Gretchen Slusser, CGLA’s director. “Because we can tell stories until were blue in the face […] but when you’re actually able to say, ‘Listen, this is the data on 25,000 people that we’ve seen in the last 5 years,’ you can’t ignore that.”
Meanwhile, CGLA has also engaged Chicago’s business community to look beyond what’s required by law. Through a partnership with Morgan Lewis, an international management law firm that represents employers, among other legal services, to major corporations, they’ve been able to make the business case for looking past the criminal record, Slusser says.
“When folks like Allstate step up and say, ‘Hey this is crazy, we want to be part of the solution,’ all of a sudden all the people who weren’t listening to you before start listening to you.”