Spotlight Exclusives

Locking People Up Makes Americans Poor

Deepak Bhargava, Center for Community Change Deepak Bhargava, Center for Community Change, posted on

Like many Americans, I am still seething with anger, frustration and sadness over the decisions by two grand juries not to indict two police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men. Racism toward black and brown people, continues to be a huge and systemic problem with deep roots in our history, one that is evident when you look at our mass incarceration system.

America imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than other country, and the specter of mass incarceration extends far beyond prisons and jails themselves. One in four American adults has a criminal record that can often be accessed through a typical background check for employment or housing.

These individuals disproportionately poor and nonwhite are thus cut off from the economic security and social supports available to others. If we are to truly address poverty in our country, we need to radically change our quick-to-arrest-culture and how we treat the formerly incarcerated.

Whether you۪re trying to get a job, rent an apartment, or take out a loan, if you have a conviction on your record, you will face constant barriers. Once you check that box that asks, “Have you ever been convicted by a court?” you are all but guaranteed that everything else you wrote on the form was not even read.

Consequently, past offenders find it enormously difficult to integrate back into society. A year after release, three out of every five formerly incarcerated people remain jobless.

Far from protecting society, these barriers to employment can cause these individuals to return to a life of crime in order to support themselves and their families, perpetuating the punishment that is destroying many poor and black families. Look at the communities where Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York lived. Jobs are hard to come by in their neighborhoods and services and programs to help people find work are even more scarce.

While we as a society oppose most forms of discrimination, we seem to have decided that even a minor criminal record renders one underserving of a second chance. We have dehumanized these people, depicting them as unrepentant predators who deserve consistent and relentless punishment from society at large.

In the long-term, this will require us to change the minds of Americans who believe that those who have been incarcerated are inherently worth less than those who have never been imprisoned. As a first step toward putting us on that path, we need to eliminate discrimination against the formerly incarcerated in all aspects of life, including education, housing, and employment.

Thankfully, advocates for equal rights have been winning at “ban the box” campaigns to eliminate exclusionary job application questions in 13 states and nearly 70 cities and counties. In 1998, Hawaii banned employers from asking applicants if they had ever been convicted of a crime. Preliminary data indicates that Hawaii۪s ban the box policy reduced repeat offenses because it diminished social stigma and ensured that qualified formerly incarcerated people can get appropriate jobs.

To truly honor the rights and freedoms of all our people, we need to get all Americans back to work in jobs that enable them to provide for themselves and their families. The first step in doing so is to dismantle the structural barriers that have us hoarding opportunity in a few specially chosen hands. As a country we must ban the box so that all Americans have a fair shot at achieving economic prosperity. The president could use his executive authority to ban the box for all federal contractors which would be a strong next step.

Recently, I heard the story of Dorsey Nunn, who was convicted at 19, tried as an adult, and sentenced to life in prison. After being kept away from his community for 10 years, he was released on parole. After his release, Nunn founded All of Us or None, a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families.

Reflecting on why destigmatizing incarceration is so important to him, Nunn said, “I do not define myself as an ex-convict; I am a person. To use that term is to take the worst moments of my life and call that a whole life.”

It۪s time we remove the stigma attached to incarceration and allow people to live their whole lives. Reforms like ban the box are a crucial part of this effort.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change.

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