The following sources represent a survey of recent and widely reviewed literature surrounding the problem relating to unemployment and criminal records in the African American community. The literature documents the variety of problems that record holders face in finding good jobs, and also propose a landscape of possible areas for reform and improvement. Empirical and theoretical work, however, suggests that barriers to employment for ex-offenders will persist as features of post Civil Rights racism and neoliberal economic policies, unless new solutions to combat neighborhood divestment are brought forth.
Prepared by Aaron Tanaka for the Boston Workers Alliance (Nov 20th, 2006)
Brooks, Lisa et al. (2005). “Prisoner Reentry in Massachusetts,” Washington D.C.: Urban Institute.
Researchers at the Urban Institute have produced the most comprehensive re-entry mapping effort of Massachusetts to date. Brooks and researchers overlay data from corrections and law-enforcement agencies onto census blocking groups. Researchers also report socioeconomic data of high re-entry neighborhoods. The study finds that the Massachusetts state-prisoner population has tripled since 1980 from 2,754 to 9,150 in 2002, largely in line with national trends. Of the 2,526 state prisoners released across the state in 2002, 20 percent returned to Suffolk County, at a rate that is 2 times the state average. Furthermore, the Urban Institute study found that majority of ex-prisoners in Suffolk County return in high concentrations to a few neighborhoods in Boston, all which have high levels of poverty, unemployment and female-headed households.
“Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community,” Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council. (2004). US Department of Labor and US Department of Health and Human Services
This comprehensive study of the Reentry Policy Council outlines the challenges and solutions to reentry for the 650,000 people released from prison and 7 million people released from jail each year. The report notes that national correctional expenditures have grown from $9 billion in 1982 to $60 billion by 2002, but the likelihood of successful reentry has not improved. Three-quarters of returning prisoners have had histories of substance abuse, two-thirds do not have a high school diploma. Half of returning prisoners earned less than $600/mo at the time of their incarceration. And without intervention, two out of three prisoners are re-arrested in the first three years of their release. The report finds that 60 percent of employers, upon initial consideration, would not hire ex-offenders. The RPC documents existing, mainline strategies for employing ex-offenders: (1) educate employers on hiring incentives and bonding programs, (2) assess ex-offender friendly sectors and find placements for jobs, (3) review state laws and eliminate discriminatory provisions that have no bearing on public safety, (4) promote individuals hiring over blanket no-hiring policies, (5) use third party intermediary to sponsor job applicants, (6) identify productive community services / internships for those unable to find work.
Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland (2005). Building Wealth: The New Asset-Based Approach to Solving Social and Economic Problems.
The Democracy Collaborative surveys ten different strategies for asset-based approaches to economic development, including Individual Development Accounts, Community Land Trusts, Community Development Financial Institutions, and Consumer, Producer and Worker Cooperatives. Building Wealth describes the small but growing Worker Cooperatives movement as a challenge to the “Walmart Economy.” Founded in the South Bronx, Cooperative Home Care Associates employs 800 worker-owners who enjoy above market-rate wages, low turnover and provide quality healthcare to their clients. CHCA is predominantly worker-owned by women of color. CHCA along with international ventures such as the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain suggest a model for community rooted, democratically controlled economic development amongst marginalized populations.
Gaynes, Elizabeth (2005). “Reentry, Helping Former Prisoners Return to Communities.” Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
This Annie E. Casey Foundation report discusses the dominant barriers to reentry for those returning from prison. The report contends that Family Strengthening, Economic Opportunity, and Networking/Community Building must be central for successful reentry, which is requisite for any development initiatives aimed at divested communities of color. The report maps solutions such as family counseling, implementing case-by-base hiring for ex-offenders, and civic engagement and voter registration. The report highlights the importance of comprehensive services and supports, as well as community based planning in dealing with reentry.
Kaplan, Claire. (2005). “CORI: Balancing Individual Rights and Public Access, Challenges of the Criminal Offender Record Information System and Opportunities for Reform.” Boston, MA: The Boston Foundation.
The Boston Foundation’s Crime and Justice Institute tracks the growth of the Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system over the last 30 years. This report identifies specific areas for reform in the recording and distribution of criminal records in Massachusetts. Solutions to common problems include, (1) improve the accuracy of reports, (2) simpifly formats of reports so employers can discern between the nature of records, (3) educate employers who use CORI, (4) encourage public and private entities to clarify guidelines around the use of CORI, (5) create incentives for ex-offender employment. The report notes that blue-color jobs are more accessible to CORI holders, but the sector continues to shrink, exacerbating pressure on already tight job-markets for ex-offenders. The report also documents that cases leading in non-convictions remain on people’s records to their disadvantage.
“Massachusetts CORI-Based Employment Discrimination” (2004). Report for the Stanley Jones Clean State Project. Boston, MA: Northeastern University School of Law.
Authors trace the development of legislative, juridical and Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHSS) policies on the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) from its inception in 1972 to a database of 2.8 million people it has become by 2004. The report presents qualitative research from ex-offender focus groups around the impact of the CORI on their employment prospects. Respondents voiced particular concern around the de-facto exclusion of record holders from many job opportunities, and the disadvantages in the workplace the ex-offender faces even if s/he obtains a job. One respondent explains, “So once you get a job, they treat you like trash. As soon as they [employers] know your background, it’s like I’m giving you a break - you owe me.” This problem suggests limitations to strategies that seek employers who are tolerant or sympathetic to CORI holders. Even with a job, broader discrimination necessarily compromises the labor position of ex-offenders, left with minimum wage jobs with unstable hours and little opportunity for growth. The authors propose legislative and judicial strategies to combating discrimination. (1) Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WEA) is the nations most comprehensive legislation that explicitly bars discrimination against individual with criminal convictions. (2) Incorporating criminal histories as a protected category under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ensures equal opportunity for racial minorities in employment.
Pager, Devah. (2003). “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 108; University of Chicago.
Pager and researches conduct the largest study on the impact of criminal records on employment, involving 350 testers applying to over 300 separate job openings. The authors overcome the limitations of employer surveys to assess negative causality from criminal records by organizing test subjects with equivalent qualifications to apply for entry-level jobs. The design tests: (1) race and (2) having a criminal record as independent variables, holding age, gender, education, personal presentation, work experience as the same. The study finds that 34% of the White cohort without criminal records received callbacks while the 14% of the Black cohort without records was called back. The White cohort with records was called back 17% of the time, while the Black cohort with records had a 5% chance of callbacks. Notably, White applicants with records were called back more often than Black applicants without criminal histories. The Pager study has serious implications for strategies in addressing unemployment in poor communities of color. Clearly, undoing criminal record discrimination is crucial for reversing the devastatingly low chances of Black returning prisoners-often concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods-to overcome chronic unemployment. But, given that employers prefer White ex-offenders to all Black applicants for entry-level jobs, eliminating the discriminatory mechanism of criminal record checks does not necessarily present a solution to the broader crisis of Black underemployment; ending record checks without addressing racism in business ownership and hiring could simply promote employer preference of white ex-offenders and exacerbate existing disparities between Black and White job seekers.
Sum, Andrew. (2004). “Trends in Black Male Joblessness and Year-Round Idleness: An Employment Crisis Ignored,” Report of the Northeastern School of Law Community Lawyering Program. Boston, MA: Northeastern University.
Authors review national trends in unemployment amongst young Black men from 1960-2003. The study surveys the long-term deterioration of the labor market and measures year-round, idleness-defined as those who did not work at any time during the year-of Black men as compared to other racial groups. Sum’s research documents the severity of male unemployment in poor African American communities. Researchers measured the employment/population ratio (e/p) for their findings, a method that overcomes the underreporting in traditional unemployment figures that exclude discouraged workers who are jobless but are not actively seeking work. Sum finds that Black men shared roughly the same employment rates as Whites in the 1950′s and ’60s, but e/p rates of Black men have precipitously dropped through 2003, widening the gap between Black and White employment by 20 percentage points. In 2002, roughly one-fourth of the country’s Black men and 44 percent of Black men without high school diplomas were idle all year long. Sum also notes long-term negative correlations between the increase of Black wages since the 1970s, and a decrease in the number of Black males with employment. These trends point to broader reorganizations of the post Civil Rights labor market that has maintained racial divides in wealth and employment.
Turner, Chuck. (2006). “Building a Movement of the Unemployed,” The Black Commentator, Oct 12th, 2006, Issue 201.
Boston City Councilor Turner cites the report of Andrew Sum around the crisis of unemployment amongst inner city Blacks. In building a framework for an unemployed workers movement, Turner cites the impossibility of developing healthy communities so long as there is political consensus supporting a $500 billion defense budget every year. Turner cites the Boston Workers Alliance as a local model of community based economic organizing and cites the formation of worker-owned cooperatives as a potential solution to racial and CORI-based employment discrimination, and a mechanism to build wealth and skills without dependence on large corporations. Turner emphasizes that eliminating the CORI does not change the number of jobs, and that that a national movement to demand a full-employment economy is ultimately necessary. Turner concludes that any liberatory movement demands the focus of our collective cosmological energies to overcome our internalized oppression and to find actualty as loving, productive and creative beings.
Van Liere, Janet. (2006). “Feasibility Study For Ex-Offender Staffing Service Agency,” prepared for the Boston Workers Alliance. Brookline, MA: ICA Group.
Consultants at the ICA Group prepare a feasibility study for the Boston Workers Alliance around the formation of an ex-offender oriented staffing agency in Boston. ICA Group finds that a small staffing agency that places 23 full time employees at any time will be self-sustaining after two years of operation. In the area of ex-offender hiring, ICA Group finds that six of the top ten employers in the City of Boston are hospitals that practice blanket no-CORI hiring practices. Cleaning and food services tend to be most accessible to those without high school diplomas and/or with criminal records. The study suggests that the CORI may be especially deleterious to Boston residents given their categorical exclusion from the health care sector.
Wacquant, Lois. (2002). Deadly Symbiosis: Rethinking race and imprisonment in twenty-first-century America. Boston, MA: Boston Review.
Wacquant documents the development of the “hyper-ghetto” between 1970s and present, charting the distinct transformation of the social ecology of urban landscape that “render[s] its social structure and cultural climate more akin to those of the prison” (Wacquant 2002, 103). Wacquant posits that the institutional lineage of slavery, Jim Crow, and the northern ghetto have accommodated historically specific demands of capital by containing black bodies (away from whites) from which to extract labor. The contemporary ghetto, however, diverges substantially in function from the carceral institutions that it succeeds. Wacquant identifies the primary developments of the post-Keynesian hyper-ghetto as an extension of the prison system which serves to contain redundant (unemployed) Black labor in the post Civil Rights era. Waquant illuminates the productive relationship between the labor market and the criminal justice system, suggesting the need for oppositional development in poor communities to resist their economic redundancy, reified through the persistence of criminal records.
Wilsom, William Julius (1996). When Work Disappears. New York: Random House Inc.
Wilson’s definitive work explicates the impact of neoliberalism and corporate globalization on the work opportunities of American inner city Blacks. Wilson charts the exportation of industrial manufacturing while surveying the feminization of the developing low-wage service economy, leaving unskilled men of color especially vulnerable to unemployment.