DMI Blog

Ezekiel Edwards

Minor Miscues, Major Consequences

The collateral consequences for people with criminal convictions are already severe. One misdemeanor can significantly diminish or outright ruin your chances for various types of employment, housing, financial aid, higher education, and licensing (not to mention its potential immigration consequences). These collateral effects of criminal convictions --- most severe for people being released from prison --- disproportionately harm the poor, creating a miserable cycle that makes it even more difficult for people in economically and educationally depressed communities to better their circumstances.

To make matters even worse, the FBI now wants to go beyond tracking "severe and/or significant offenses" (felonies and significant misdemeanors) and include on criminal history reports (accessed by employers and licensing agencies) "non-serious offenses" - from drinking in public to teenage vagrancy, traffic violations to urinating in public, loitering to disorderly conduct. As Michelle Chen observes in the New Standard, this "would foreclose employment opportunities for an untold number of people, disproportionately impact people of color, and invite the abuse of sensitive information."

The majority of employers will not hire someone with an arrest or "infraction" history, and even the most meaningless of follies will cause heightened scrutiny of the applicant. Any negative information, no matter how minor or long ago, will inevitably be prejudicial towards the applicant. Compound the stigma of even a non-criminal record with the fact that numerous state and federal laws have made it increasingly easy for employers to perform invasive background checks, and soon people's lives could be negatively impacted by the revelation of even the most minor indiscretions.

Additionally alarming is the fact that these vast criminal records databases are riddled with mistakes or incomplete --- half the arrest records do not contain the outcome of the cases (i.e., dismissal, acquittal, the District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute, etc.). Not only does the FBI want to allow even greater invasions of our private lives, but such incursions would sometimes uncover false and misleading information --- but damaging nonetheless.

Under the guise of "public safety" and the "war on terror", the government has intensified its reckless encroachment onto our private lives. It is one thing for an employer to be able to access information about a prior rape conviction, or for a prospective schoolteacher, FBI agent, or Senate candidate to expect a thorough background check before being hired. It is quite another, though, for 90,000 law enforcement agencies and untold numbers of employers to have access to each and every misstep of someone's life, and to base important decisions on that information.

I have had clients denied employment even when their "open" cases have been adjourned for dismissal, or when their prospective employer misread their rap sheets and saw a conviction when there was none. It is hard enough generally for people ensnared in the criminal justice system to find work, or get a state license, or qualify for financial aid, even if they do not have a criminal conviction, and exponentially more difficult if they do. One can only imagine the hardship if employment, licensing, and educational agencies had access even to our "non-serious offenses". Since in communities like the Bronx it is common for the police to arrest people reflexively for "non-serious offenses", adoption of the FBI's proposal would only do further damage to the health and growth of poor communities.

Whether from a humanitarian or utilitarian perspective, we should be concentrating on reducing recidivism rates by expanding the future opportunities of all citizens, instead of trying to make people's future prospects bleak by publicizing insignificant incidents from their past.

Ezekiel Edwards: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 19, 2006 in Civil Rights | Criminal Justice | Economic Opportunity | Employment | Prisons
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