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In a country of 310 million people, it may seem surprising to hear that 45 million Americans have a criminal record.  But it is true.

Michelle Alexander’s recent book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" has attracted a lot of attention both negative and positive in the past few months.  In her book, Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. She also makes the case that a new racial caste system has been created through mass incarceration.

I agree with Alexander that there is in fact a caste system for former prisoners who are saddled with criminal records.  Devah Prager’s book Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration is a must-read for anybody who is interested in this issue.  Prager’s sociological study of ex-prisoners suggests that their chances of being gainfully employed are truly bleak and that this poses both a moral and social challenge.  It is the only book that I have read that squarely addresses these issues and does so in an accessible way.

However, the issue of criminal records affects many more people than those who were formerly incarcerated. About a month ago, an article by the AP (which is no longer available online) pointed out that criminal records are negatively impacting job-seekers.

From the AP article:

   

With millions of adults having criminal records — anything from underage drinking to homicide — a growing number of job seekers are having a rough time finding work. And more companies are trying to screen out people with bankruptcies, court judgments or other credit problems just as those numbers have swollen during the recession.

   Just ask Adrienne Hudson, a single mother who says she was fired from her new job as a bus driver at First Transit in Oakland, Calif., when the company found out she had been convicted seven years earlier for welfare fraud.

This is a truly calamitous situation where employers continue to have the upper hand to depress wages and create larger social problems.  Our capitalist system depends on having a permanent imbalance between supply and demand.  Employers are socially engineering the labor pool so that they can pay the most people the least amount of money.

It seems that the Federal Government through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken note of this practice and is prepared to act:

   Companies using criminal records or bad credit reports to screen out job applicants might run afoul of anti-discrimination laws as the government steps up scrutiny of hiring policies that can hurt blacks and Hispanics.

   A blanket refusal to hire workers based on criminal records or credit problems can be illegal if it has a disparate impact on racial minorities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency enforces the nation’s employment discrimination laws.

   "Our sense is that the problem is snowballing because of the technology allowing these checks to be done with a fair amount of ease," said Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel at the EEOC.

Fortunately many states provide the opportunity to expunge, erase, or seal criminal records.  I am reaching out to those of you who might be interested in this topic to tell you about the UN-marked Campaign.  We are coming together in Chicago to educate our communities about the importance and value of expunging juvenile criminal records.  We are focusing on juvenile records in particular because other local organizations are already working very hard to educate formerly incarcerated adults about their rights in sealing and expunging their criminal records.  We have noticed that there is a gap in working with youth, their families, and other adults regarding juvenile criminal records.

To begin with, through the UN-marked Campaign, we are inviting the general public to participate in our own version of the 6 word memoir.  

When the online storytelling magazine SMITH asked its readers to submit six-word memoirs, the results were fascinating, moving, and sometimes very funny.  The results were published in a bestselling book called "Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers."

This past mother’s day, the ONE campaign asked its supporters to write six-words reflecting on Why Moms Matter.

Inspired by these efforts, Project NIA’s UN-marked campaign invites interested individuals to submit six-words to convey either the effect/impact of having a juvenile criminal record or to illustrate the importance of clearing a juvenile criminal record.

An example would be: "Fifteen years later still can’t work."

Another could be: "Arrested at 16; shoplifting; never recovered."

So be creative and add your six-words to the mix.  We hope to use the best submissions to create an awareness raising poster as part of the UN-marked campaign.  

You can submit your 6 words about the impact of having a juvenile record or the value of erasing it to the UN-marked campaign by commenting in this diary.  You can send your submission to us at unmarkedcampaign@gmail.com.  You can also tweet your submission to @projectnia.

Finally, please take a minute to read more about the campaign at our BLOG.

Thanks in advance.

Originally posted to mka193 on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 06:52 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This dovetails nicely (4+ / 0-)

    with the right's other efforts to divide the working class.

    Note that a drug conviction makes one ineligible for federal student loans. Get caught with a bag of pot and you are screwed.

    "A lie is not the other side of a story; it's just a lie."

    by happy camper on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 06:57:57 AM PDT

  •  Many country do not honor conviction of their (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42

    citizens in US courts because there is general believe that their conviction was biased. How sad. It is a pity how low the United States Justice System has Fallen.

  •  When you privatize prisons... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42, washunate

    would do you expect to happen?

    I did campaign on the public option, and I'm proud of it! Corporat Democrats will not get my vote, hence I will not vote.

    by Jazzenterprises on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 07:06:58 AM PDT

  •  I'm a criminal defense attorney - (7+ / 0-)

    and this is one of the most troubling aspects of my daily experiences.

    Like most of my clients, I'm from a working class background. Education and military service allowed me to become a professional with a comfortable income. Too often, especially in the past few years, I've seen young people whose future opportunities are compromised by offenses which, even in my youth, would have been relatively consequence-free.

    I posit three main culprits:

    1. Increased centralization of court records combined with the ease of computer retrieval.
    1. Substitution of polically expedient offender fines and fees for public services that should be paid for by taxes, which incentivizes police, probation offices, and courts to maximize revenue.
    1. The "franchising" of America - wherein both service and manufacturing jobs are increasingly largely available only from major corporations and their subsidiaries, which are much more likely to run background checks and deny employment on strict criteria (including "no criminal history") than local businesses do.

    I hope that this issue gains a higher profile, because it does have very serious consequences for everyone, not just the individuals directly harmed.

    Thanks to the diarist and others raising this issue.

    I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. - Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC

    by Marinesquire on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 07:42:45 AM PDT

    •  Thank you for this comment. It is right (4+ / 0-)

      on time.

      It also is true that these records may contain misleading or false information.  In the case of mistaken identification, few employers even want to listen to prospective employees whose names might have been confused with someone else's.

      For some gay folks picked up on all-purpose charges of sodomy or lewd behavior, there sometimes is a marker for sex offenses.

      More and more nonprofits, even social change groups, who work with youth are relying on highly flawed criminal background checks to create "safety," while NOT doing the kind of ongoing internal training/supervision that is necessary to create truly safe environments for young people.

      Criminal background checks are big business - and the business is growing.  

      Teach us to listen to sounds larger than our own heartbeat; that endure longer than our own weeping in the dark. - Lillian Smith

      by RadioGirl on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 07:49:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Can You Tell Us What The "Offenses" Are (0+ / 0-)

      that were,

      even in my youth, would have been relatively consequence-free.

      and now have consequences?  I work as a volunteer chaplain in our prison system and don't see offenders that fit that category.

      •  In our small town/rural area, many minor offenses (0+ / 0-)

        used to be dealt with informally - either with a police warning (especially for juveniles) or at the local magistrate's level - therefore not creating an easily searchable record. I'm not claiming that this system was without flaws, but it did give many people a second chance to keep a clean record after a "youthful indescration". Increased pressure on officers to file formal charges in virtually every case, combined with a myriad of new collateral effects flowing from a criminal conviction, has as a practical matter made many minor infractions into very consequential events.

        Statutorily, the examples I was thinking of in my state (PA) include:

        Underage drinking - now (since the mid-1980's) carries a mandatory driver's license suspension regardless of whether a vehicle was involved, which makes keeping a job difficult. It can also now interfere with getting a teaching position due to the availability of the computerized records. On the upside PA recently passed an easier expungement law specifically for this offense after one turns 21.

        Possession of Marijuana - now bars federal student loans, also now carries a mandatory 6-month driver's license suspension regardless of whether a car was involved (again, real job-killer in a rural area).

        Tresspassing - now a Felony in PA in most circumstances, with all the negative consequences that result.

        Retail Theft (shoplifting) - third strike during lifetime is now a Felony regardless of item's value.

        Perhaps my words were chosen poorly, but by "relatively consequence-free" I didn't mean without consequences for defendants and any victims. That said, even my local judges complain regularly about minor offenses eating up court resources and having serious collateral effects on defendants out of all proportion to the societal harm done by the offense. In a sense, we all feel trapped by the increasing (computerized) bureaucracy of the system and its inability to resolve cases in appropriate ways that balance all the interests involved.

        Thanks for the question. Thanks also for your work, Chaplain.

        I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. - Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC

        by Marinesquire on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 10:41:26 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks - this is near and dear to my (5+ / 0-)

    own heart.

    Kudos to you for the juvenile records campaign.  This is incredibly important.

    A personal story:

    I have been denied consideration for a contract based on the fact that the U.S. government has "a record" of criminal activity.  Presumably, this relates to anti-war/pro-farmworker organizing acts of peaceful civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action in 1969-71.

    But the local records for these arrests (and two convictions/jail sentences) no longer exist and it is impossible to tell from FBI records received via Freedom of Information Act WHAT "record of criminal activity" they are talking about.  In one instance, the FBI redacted files were wrong - they said I was not convicted of something for which I actually was convicted and served a short jail sentence.  

    When I tried pursuing this, all I ran into was silence.  I can't afford an attorney to pursue this right now.  

    And I'm privileged.  Imagine what it's like if you're poor, a person of color, trying to move forward.  

    Teach us to listen to sounds larger than our own heartbeat; that endure longer than our own weeping in the dark. - Lillian Smith

    by RadioGirl on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 07:44:59 AM PDT

  •  More education that (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    el dorado gal, Nice Ogre

    expungement, vacating, and sealing is available for many convictions.

    Even a fair amount of felonies can be sealed or vacated.

    In WA all juvenile misdemeanors and many juvenile felonies can be sealed.

    For adults there are more restrictions especially if you have multiple convictions you will not be able seal them all.

    •  Furthermore (0+ / 0-)

      Criminal non-conviction court records for an adult cannot be expunged in any Washington State court. The Seattle City Attorney's office is now arguing and is trying to ban non-conviction records from being expunged in the municipal courts, too. This is bad because many people can't get jobs or promotions because of their arrest record, even though they were aquitted or never charged of a crime.

  •  right on (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42, buddabelly

    We either reintegrate offenders into civilian society - which means full rights of citizenship, from education to employment to housing to suffrage - or we create a whole tier in society that has no stake in a stable, peaceful, prosperous society.

    What I've never understood is why so many Democrats go along with the demonization of people who tend to be poorer than the population overall.

    Our capitalist system depends on having a permanent imbalance between supply and demand.

    I would quibble with that, though. The problem isn't capitalism. Capitalists are happy to employ black people and sell homes to brown people and so forth. The problem is our political system remaking our legislative landscape to benefit the few at the expense of the many. It's public policy, not capitalism, that has depressed wages for the past few decades.

    Ask your Member of Congress what they're doing to put Americans back to work.

    by washunate on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 08:16:49 AM PDT

  •  I'm glad I live in Switzerland (0+ / 0-)

    Here, if an employer or prospective employer wants to know whether you have a criminal record, they have to ask you to get it for them. This requires filling out a form and sending it in via your local town council, which verifies that you are who you say you are.

    Furthermore, small "crimes", like importing pornography, or similar pecadiloes, are expunged after 2 - 5 years, depending on the "severity".

    FOSI: Full Of Shit Information - Both my sister and I are trivia freaks...

    by Spoc42 on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 08:51:07 AM PDT

  •  I work in law enforcement in florida (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    el dorado gal, Marinesquire, DaNang65

    and I help people deal with criminal history issues all day. This is a problem that i suspect almost no one really knows about and it will be very difficult to generate a groundswell for but it must be addresseed.
     In Florida anytime someone makes an accusation against another person and charges are filed the person standing accused has a criminal history. So if for example someone were to accuse me of sexual contact with a minor, in Florida before any trial or evidence is collected that charge is now part of a public record with my name and arrest information available to anyone who wants to see it.  Here's the kicker, let's say that during even the most cursory of investigations the authorities find that I was not even in the county where the alleged crime took place guess what happens to that public record? nothing, thats right its still available for the whole world to see and its my responsibility to get it removed, but wait it gets better. The process for removing a bogus criminal charge in florida is called seal/expunge and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
     So lets say I have had one bogus arrest due to a  phony charge and a charge that I was actually responsible for, lets say driving with a suspended driver's license. If I was convicted for the driving charge, there is literally NO WAY to remove the sexual contact charge, none, nada, zip, ZERO ways to take if off of my permenant criminal history. If I was fortunate enough to have not been convicted of the thing I did do, I can try to have the sexual contact charge removed which will cost me $75 (which is cost prohibitive when you havent worked for a while because of your criminal history).
     I have asked a few co-workers how this system makes sense, they seem to believe that what the State of Florida does is legitimate, all we do they reason is "accurately report" criminal history activity. While thats true, it fails to acknowledge the very simple ramification of that, if someone comes to the state for a criminal history for a potential hiree and they see a charge for sexual contact with a minor, why are they going to hire me? why are they going to consider hiring me? they wont, forget the fact that, that particular charge was dropped, they dont care and they dont want to deal with it.
     The reason I know that this fight, which I will argue until my dying day is well worth having, will be difficult to garner support for, is that people without criminal histories dont usually care about those that do. Here in Florida most of my co-workers are pretty conservatie, they see criminals as people who have to be punished and if the punishment last a lifetime, tough titty.

    After they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want to keys back. No! You can't drive!

    by tygerwilde on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 09:13:50 AM PDT

    •  Hoe many parents have I heard say: (0+ / 0-)

      "My kid isn't bad, he just made a mistake"? Other people's kids - not so much.

      This is my point (above) about fines/costs/ and fees - it's too easy for the legislators to cost-shift paying for public services by adding costs to defendants rather than raising taxes because no voter thinks they are going to be the one's paying those costs.

      Also - many private background check companies take a "snapshot in time" of the publicly available criminal histories. So, even if you get something dismisssed or expunged (or if you get acquitted), it may still exist in a private database and be reported to a potential employer.

      I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. - Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC

      by Marinesquire on Mon Sep 13, 2010 at 11:00:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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