People are catching on to the fact that we live in one of the most prison-prone nations in the world, with nearly 30 percent of our adult population having a criminal record, according to FBI estimates. The numbers show that being so quick to lock people up does little to prevent future crime, and can actually backfire by hardening criminals in toxic prison environments. While a MacArthur grant awarded to Spokane County will help improve outcomes for people entering the system, we as a community have an important role to play in continuing the path to full restoration upon their exit.
Like returning veterans who are haunted by war, former offenders are often unable to leave dark memories behind in the jail cell. Reintegration into society is a challenging process made more difficult by stereotypes and biases held by fellow law-abiding citizens. These are especially damaging in the job market, where the ability to gain employment is a top factor in predicting whether or not an individual will reoffend. Contrary to popular belief, people with criminal histories come from a wide background of educational and work experiences, and are often uniquely eager to create a life as contributing members of society.
Fortunately, there are no-cost fair chance hiring practices, such as removing the criminal record check-box from initial employment applications, designed to ensure that applicants are judged on their qualifications, while still allowing employers to run routine background checks later in the interviewing process. This simple delay ensures that employers don't inadvertently pass over a qualified potential hire, and allows applicants a chance to share their experiences in context. The city of Spokane, along with more than 100 other municipalities across the country, has already implemented this common sense reform for its employees. Twenty-four states have adopted the measure and nine have done so for private employers.
In some cases, people who have overcome great adversity actually have something valuable to teach the rest of us about resilience, the will to change, and the complicated dimensions of the human spirit. These qualities can be especially valuable in environments where the purpose of the work is to help disadvantaged populations and rebuild community. Unfortunately, discrimination in volunteering too often echoes that in employment settings, shutting former offenders out of valuable ways to build their résumés, reconnect with their own healing potential and give back to the community.
Once we see how blindly discriminating against those with criminal histories reinforces a dangerous cycle, we can reverse these tendencies and work instead to safely reintegrate people into society.
"After people serve their time, they need to have the best chances for success in rebuilding their lives," says Layne Pavey, director of I Did The Time, a Spokane-based advocacy group focused on improving outlooks among the formerly incarcerated. "People deserve the chance to gain experience and move up in the world."
Each of us must look within ourselves and ask how we can be a part of re-establishing the circle of social trust. Supporting fair chance hiring is a strong start.♦
Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She currently serves as a public health advocate.