Are Employment Background Checks to Blame for High Recidivism Rates?

employment background checksEvery single day I am reading articles about “Ban the Box”, the EEOC new strategic plan that focuses on narrowing the use of criminal records in employment decisions and a myriad of blog comments that suggest employment background checks are to blame for high offender recidivism and that I should be prosecuted for high crimes related to my dedication to safety, security and violence prevention. I admit that after 20 years of violence prevention work, including 7 years as a violent crime detective, I am committed to preventing violence.   The current trend is to silence the voice of violence survivors and focus on external causes for offenders re-offending (that is what we have been doing for 30 years with no success).

Yes, maybe having a front row seat to the ravages of violence, interviewing women and children who have been brutally raped and beaten gives me a slightly different perspective.  For me, violence is not a benign and impersonal study but a child named Sam or a rape victim named Susan.  It is real.

I read studies like the recent NM Legislative Study that finds 50% of NM offenders are back in prison within 5 years.  And that the average offender makes 3 trips to prison.

I will say it again (because most of the comments I receive are from people who have not heard this) that yes, I am a founder and CEO of a fast growing background screening firm.  I have ALSO been involved in prison ministries and am a board member of Outreach, Inc. in Indianapolis which serves homeless teens of which criminal records and lack of employment are barriers.

So yeah, actually I do understand and listen to both sides.  But I also know that violence is a choice.

Does gainful employment play a significant role in getting an offender back on his or her feet?  Absolutely if it is married to personal responsibility and a commitment to change.

What about issues of substance abuse?  Education?  Lack of family support and structure?  Thinking errors?

Are most burglaries committed to feed a family or to satisfy a drug habit?  Depends who you speak with.

I have seen many, many people turn from a life of crime and violence and become productive members of society.  Not a single one of them would credit a job as being the one thing that turned them around.  No, they would list Jesus Christ.  Pastor.  Positive role model.  A program that instilled a sense of purpose and validated them.

The current trends are imbalanced.  And without balance, we will fall.

I agree that zero tolerance policies for criminal records are not a responsible approach to recruiting and hiring.  Also, blanket policies that tell employers they cannot ask about criminal records on an application or cannot use criminal records are irresponsible.

One of the arguments for ban-the-box legislation is that it saves organizations money because they do not have to run a criminal background check until after the interview.  Frankly, I don’t know of many employers that are running background checks until they make a conditional offer.

And for some organizations, ban-the-box will cost them more money in recruiting.  We work with hundreds of schools who have state laws that preclude them from hiring ex-offenders who have committed certain crimes.   So now they are going to invest time and labor to bring a candidate through the recruiting process only to discover at the end that they are excluded under state law from being employed.

The application is a great tool for gathering information for our due diligence process.  We know people lie on applications.  Remember the Notre Dame football coach a few years ago?   Dishonesty is and always should be grounds for disqualification.  But now we are going to remove questions about criminal records.

I know, we can ask them during an interview.  But if they lie by speaking then doesn’t that become my word against yours instead of having a signed application?

So the debate is really starting to heat up across the U.S.  What I would like to see is a balanced discussion on how to convert offenders to ex-offender status.   I think it is reasonable that we can have civil debates on the responsible use of employment background checks.

If you are unclear how the new EEOC strategic plan might impact your organization, join us for a free 30 minute webinar on 7/24/2012 at 2PM EST.  Click her to register.