Pubdate: Thu, 26 Aug 2004
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Ann Zimmerman, and Kortney Stringer
Cited: National WorkRights Institute
Cited: The Sentencing Project


While Peter Demain was serving a six-year sentence for possession of 21 
pounds of marijuana, he did such a good job working in the prison kitchen 
that he quickly rose to head baker. After his release, the Durango, Colo., 
resident filled out 25 job applications at bagel shops, coffee houses, 
grocery stores and bakeries. All turned him down. Some even asked him to 
leave the premises immediately after learning of his conviction.

It's never been easy for someone with a criminal history to find work, but 
it is becoming increasingly difficult. More businesses are using 
criminal-background checks to guard against negligent-hiring lawsuits, 
theft of company assets and even terrorism. About 80% of big companies in 
the U.S. now do such checks, up from 56% in 1996, according to a January 
survey of personnel executives.

Two weeks ago, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest corporate 
employer with more than 1.2 million workers, said it would conduct 
criminal-background checks on all applicants in its U.S. stores, beginning 
in September. Wal-Mart's former policy was to order background checks only 
for certain personnel, including loss-prevention and pharmacy employees.

Yet as they rely on background checks to screen workers, companies risk 
imposing unfair barriers to rehabilitated criminals. For society, the 
implications are huge: If former offenders can't find legitimate jobs, they 
may be driven back to crime.

"Forty-six million people in this country have been convicted of something 
sometime in their lives and our economy would collapse if none of them 
could get jobs," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National WorkRights 
Institute,a nonprofit human-rights organization founded by former staff of 
the American Civil Liberties Union. That figure includes everybody in the 
FBI criminal records database, which includes people convicted of a 
relatively minor misdemeanor.

Minorities, in particular, could be hurt, as they are jailed in 
disproportionately higher numbers than whites. Black males are incarcerated 
at five times the rate of Anglo males and Hispanics at more than twice the 
rate for white men.

Blacks with criminal records also pay a bigger penalty in the job market. 
According to a study of applicants for low-level jobs conducted by Devah 
Pager, a Northwestern University sociologist, having a prison record cut by 
two thirds a black man's chances of getting called back by an employer, 
while it cut a white man's chances by half.

The explosion in background checks is occurring in part because 
technological advances have made them faster and cheaper. Businesses 
commonly pay $25 to $100 per search, and the price is dropping. Several 
months ago, SecurTest, a Florida-based applicant-screening company, began 
offering background checks using its own proprietary system that culls 
public criminal records. The service, which costs about $10 per applicant, 
focuses mainly on felony-type convictions.

Bottom line: It's now affordable for businesses to do checks for the very 
sorts of entry-level jobs in which rehabilitated criminals are encouraged 
to seek employment.

Wal-Mart came under fire last month for two separate incidents in South 
Carolina in which its employees were accused of sexually assaulting young 
female shoppers. Both of the accused employees had prior criminal 
convictions for sexually related offenses. Several weeks after the episodes 
at Wal-Mart came to light in news accounts, two members of South Carolina's 
legislature proposed a bill requiring all retailers that sell toys or 
children's clothing to conduct background checks on potential employees. A 
spokesman for Wal-Mart says the Bentonville, Ark., company was unaware of 
the criminal records of the two employees in question.

How businesses use background checks may be just as important as whether 
they do. Prisoner advocates are most bothered by "zero-tolerance" policies 
that bar companies from hiring anyone with a criminal record of any sort.

"The question that should be asked is is there a legitimate connection 
between the crime and employment conditions?" says Gil Kline, spokesman for 
Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy group for 
criminal-justice policy.

Wal-Mart says it will use background checks on a case-by-case basis, and 
that people with a criminal record could still be offered a job. It will 
all depend on the nature of the crime, how long ago it occurred, and the 
type of job being filled, the company says.

That's the right way to use background checks, some experts say. But with 
plenty of jobless workers to choose from in today's economy, they fear that 
many companies will be tempted to reject anyone with a criminal record, 
despite a federal law that prohibits a criminal history from being an 
absolute bar to hiring.

Such scrutiny has tempted some applicants to lie. When Jeffrey Calwise 
first got out of prison for unarmed robbery, he disclosed his criminal 
history on work applications. But after numerous rejections, he decided to 
fib. The Detroit resident got a factory job making $6.50 an hour, but was 
later fired after the company performed a background check and discovered 
his criminal record.

Then, Mr. Calwise decided to begin writing "will discuss at interview" on 
applications that asked about whether he'd been convicted of a crime. That 
didn't work, either: He got some interviews, but his explanation didn't get 
him any jobs.

"I'm fairly intelligent, so it has to be my background," said Mr. Calwise, 
a 40-year-old who is currently in a drug-treatment program and serving 
probation at a halfway house for a conviction on drug possession.

The U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to give job-seekers a 
copy of their background report if they are rejected due to a criminal 
offense. The law also permits applicants to challenge the reports. But 
companies can always cite different reasons for rejecting someone. Another 
loophole: Employers aren't required to give a person a copy of the report 
if they conduct the search themselves, such as by mining publicly available 
court records.

Even law-abiding job-seekers can find themselves unemployable if a 
background check is flawed. Glitches in criminal database searches can 
inadvertently supply an employer with erroneous information on an applicant.

Ron Peterson, who used to work as an insulation technician in California, 
has applied for more than 50 jobs since being laid off by MCI a year ago 
but hasn't ever been called in for an interview. After watching a news show 
on background checks, he decided to buy one on himself. One report claimed 
a Ronald Peterson with the same birth date but a different middle initial 
had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in Arizona. Mr. Peterson wonders if 
that's a factor in his forlorn job search.

"I wouldn't hire me from what these reports said," Mr. Peterson said. In 
the meantime, he has tried to set the record straight. He contacted the 
municipal court where the guilty plea was entered, and sent a copy of his 
fingerprints. That was May and he has yet to hear back.



Large companies in the U.S. that check all job applicants' backgrounds for 
criminal records include:

. Wal-Mart*

. General Motors

. Ford Motor

. General Electric

. Citigroup

. International Business Machines

. American International Group

* Beginning September 2004

Source: the companies