By Mark Naison (August 26, 2015)
The other day, one of my friends and tennis partners, a criminal lawyer, gave a chilling account of what a good part of his law practice involves. Many of his clients, he said, are working class people who have been arrested for non violent crimes ranging from shoplifting, to possessing small amounts of drugs, to passing bad checks, to getting in bar room brawls, to arguing with police when stopped for DWB or WWB ( Driving or Walking While Black). What he tells these clients is that they are paying him to make sure that they won’t have an arrest or conviction record that will show up on background checks. And why is that worth it? Because employers simply won’t hire people, even for entry level jobs, if they have criminal convictions on their record.
I left this conversation extremely upset. Not just because it confirmed what i knew about criminal records disqualifying people for employment-I knew this from unsuccessfully trying to help young men who had recently been released from prison find jobs-but because this disqualification covered even people who were arrested for non violent offenses who would never spend a day in jail, a group whose numbers have been growing astronimically in the last few years because of “Broken Windows Policing.”
In many parts of this country, it is the official policy of police departments to arrest people en masse for minor non violent offenses. In New York City, the stated logic of this policy is to prevent more serious crimes and to engage in searches which take guns off the street; but in many other communities, such as Ferguson Missourri, a side effect of the policy is to fine local residents in such proportions that it helps balance strapped city budgets. In any case, it is now official public policy to maximize arrests for non-violent offenses and to promote police officers based on the number of such arrests they make through a computerized system called Comstat.
Now put two and two together. Basically, we have a system of police governance whose major side effect is to render large numbers of people unemployable!!!
And who are these people? Are they college students who possess or sell drugs? Or wealthy people who smash their luxury cars? Overwhelmingly, the people arrested for these offenses are poor people and people of color, especially young men of color.
Is this really just? Is this really fair? Is it in the national interest to conduct public policy in a way that renders a high proportion of young men of color unemployable?
We need to challenge this on two fronts. First, take a hard look at Broken Windows Policing. And second, look at how backround checks are used to disaqualify people for employment for conviction of non violent offenses.
If we don’t we are heading for an explosion. We may be at that point already
Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee