EEOC Accepting Public Input on the Issue of Criminal Background Checks

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will publicly consider developing a policy on Arrest and Conviction Records as a barrier to employment.  They will take testimony via

DATE AND TIME:  Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 9:30 A.M. Eastern Time

PLACE: Commission Meeting Room on the First Floor of the EEOC Office Building, 131 “M” Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20507.  The meeting will be open to public observation of the Commission’s deliberations and voting. Seating is limited and it is suggested that visitors arrive 30 minutes before the meeting in order to be processed through security and escorted to the meeting room.

See my letter below… and write yours even if it is the simplest two line email!

July 16

Re:  EEOC Enforcement of Title VII Protections Regulating Criminal Background Checks

Dear Chair Berrien and Commissioners Ishimaru, Barker, Feldblum, and Lipnic:

I commend the Commission for taking up this very timely issue, particularly as we have reached a critical mass of Americans bearing the “mark of a criminal record,” and we continue to seek a positive response to automation replacing jobs.  As machines replaced people in manufacturing, it is happening in retail, and the need for human labor is at an all time low.  If some sense of economic equity is not developed, or in the least, permitted, then the road ahead looks grim.

In 2005 I was released from prison after 11 years, 8 months and was restricted by an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet for one year.  Prior to my release, I was only able to find one job, and it took me two hours to get to work.  After a few months, and with school starting soon, I sought a job closer to home, at a Sears department store warehouse.  I did not check the “box” asking if I had been convicted of a felony in the past seven years.

My interview at Sears went well.  I submitted to a drug test, and upon the second interview I mentioned he would need to speak with my parole officer before taking the job.  When we got into my very distant past, it was clear I was not getting the job despite my willingness to work hard for under $8 per hour.  Friends of mine generally do not get that far, as most have been convicted in the past seven years.  He likely would have been more comfortable with a lighter crime, yet if only five years ago I probably would not have made the interview.

Two weeks ago I went to New Orleans to find an apartment, and my search led me to the River Garden Apartments.  I introduced myself as a Tulane Law Student.  After going through the process, I asked if they discriminated against anyone.  The agent assured me they did not, and requested my non-refundable $50 application fee.  I asked about “people with convictions.”  She did not know; they use a third party to do their background checks, but she was helpful enough to find their policy:

Anyone with a felony conviction within the past seven years is barred from living in River Garden, one of the largest housing complexes in New Orleans.  And anyone who ever had a crime of violence or property damage cannot live there.  I was not sure who owned the property[1] (I did not know it replaced St. Thomas Public Housing Authority), so I did not mention the HUD National Director’s recent letter advising local PHA Directors to allow people with convictions to live in public housing[2], and how the so-called federal ban is actually a myth.  What I did tell her, however, is how it is unfortunate that you would allow a third party to make a unilateral decision about where someone can live based on their worst day perhaps 20 years ago.  And how River Garden could miss out on some excellent tenants for this community.

I am one of the fortunate.  Most of my friends, family, and associates have criminal records; but few, record or not, have the wherewithal to repeatedly overcome these obstacles. Many are unemployed, and too many have given up hope.  Last year we introduced a “Ban the Box” bill in Rhode Island that would apply to all employers.   We have gained the support of many, including the largest network of people in recovery, the mayor of Providence, and leading representatives of both parties in the General Assembly.  Those opposed: a lobbyist who represents background check companies.  They could not provide any evidence of people with criminal records creating less effective workplaces, yet evidence of these policies decimating communities is overwhelming.

This issue is akin to the for-profit prison industry, ripe with billions of dollars in profits and millions of dollars in campaign donations[3].  My question to the Commission, the Administration, and other elements of government is simple:  Do you have a price?  If so, the industries will find a way to meet it, and find a way to profit from pain.  The background check industry has network television commercials promoting fear of our neighbor, and encouraging checks merely to go on a date.  “Tough on Crime” rhetoric has long since replaced overt racist sentiments, no differently than many of those who are in the Anti-Immigrant movement.  Engaging in the “criminal” debate is allowing oneself to be manipulated away from the true issue at hand: racism.

I am encouraged that Title VII is on the EEOC table, and Employment Discrimination is the arena.  The many layers of exploitation and oppression for anyone with a criminal conviction is so overwhelming, the rules of the road are condemning people to a life of unemployment and hunger.  I have known people who looked for work for months before returning to a life of crime.  One could almost feel happy for them, finally able to buy groceries, pay the phone bill, and the like.  And then they return to prison.  The status quo stifles our human capital, demoralizes and incapacitates us, and ultimately forces government programs to enroll us: for the most part, women go to TANF; men go to prison[4].   This is a broad and interconnected issue, including housing[5] and education, and a proper analysis cannot be found in a vacuum- it must include a legacy that extends back through the Drug War, Jim Crow, Prison Labor, and Slavery.

I would argue that there is a relationship between Title VII and the choice of where law enforcement is deployed[6].  Communities of Color are having their resumes tarnished in massive numbers, even as teenagers, disrupting their education prospects and relegating them as outcasts.  Between drug use, theft, and rape, college campuses have extremely high crime rates[7], yet the police are not on every corner, nor kicking in doors for the smell of marijuana.  Discrimination on employment applications is an “effect” that needs tending to, but a good doctor will always assess and take action on the “cause.”

A friend of mine was just released after 20 years in prison.  He is unemployed, living with his mother, and soaking up the fresh air of freedom.  I lived with him in a 5×8’ cell for over two years, and in the same block for nearly ten.  He is an honest, loyal, hard-working man full of spirit.  I encouraged him to learn all he could inside, and he has many certificates and capacities.  I encouraged him to be twice as good, twice as fast, and always on time as that’s what it takes to survive out here.  Somewhere in America some legislature, prison administration, or business just created another obstacle for us to overcome, while someone made a dollar implementing it, and someone else made a dollar helping us get over it.  When does it stop?   I hope my friend gets one chance, as its all he needs.  Whether he does or not, entire communities continue to pay interest on our “debt to society.”  Please help me to stand up for those who are suffering.


Bruce Reilly

Coordinator, Criminal Justice Funder & Activist Network

Artistic Director, 1000 lbs Guerilla

Tulane Law School (’14)

Earl Warren Scholar, NAACP Legal Defense Fund

[1] River Garden is a project of HRI Properties, a major developer in New Orleans, committed to “recreating entire communities.”  Their “callous” and illegal behavior following Katrina has been condemned by a Federal judge:  HRI would not be the owners if not for the 1999 Development Agreement (as amended) and considerable federal tax breaks and subsidies.

[3] See: Justice Policy Institute report, “Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies.  (2011)

[4] Millions of former TANF recipients are neither connected to the program nor work, while women’s incarceration rates have notoriously skyrocketed since 1996, when welfare was “reformed.”

[5] Federal housing non-discrimination policies, like at River Garden, fail to account for “convictions,” yet they do account for race.  However, if the Disparate Impact of convictions are acknowledged, then these policies demand review.

[6] “Hot Spot” policing, strongly supported by the federal COPS funding can only account for “modest” decreases in crime “reporting;” meanwhile, they are only beginning to question the public perceptions and full impact on the community that is supposed to be protected.  Adding programs such as “Secure Communities” has only further decreased crime reporting, as the public grows more fearful of police activity than criminal activity.

[7] Reported crimes are well-known to be extremely low, just as colleges have a self-interest in showing a “safe” campus.  However, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all admitted criminal drug use in college, which is the leading cause of convictions in highly policed areas.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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2 Responses to EEOC Accepting Public Input on the Issue of Criminal Background Checks

  1. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

  2. Pingback: Rhode Island: 10th State to “Ban the Box” on Employment Applications | unprison

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