A second chance needed for blacks with criminal records

By Devah Pater
Published by University of Chicago Press, $16

I am still shocked as I edit the final touches to this review. A white job applicant with a criminal record has a better chance of being hired than a black applicant with no criminal record. We now know this thanks to this excellent study by Devah Pager of how a criminal record can be a barrier to employment.

Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you visited me,” as one of the works of mercy, is often quoted as the reason for Christians to remember those in prison. But like other New Testament passages translated from the original, I believe this word visiting somewhat waters down the radical message of Jesus. Jesus tells us that we should not only visit but also liberate people in prison.

Liberation means advocating for them in such ways as supporting their release at parole hearings and volunteering to mentor them once they are released. In other words, getting them out and then making sure that they do not return.

An associate professor of sociology at Princeton University, Pager uses the innovative research method of in-person audit studies. Matched pairs of volunteers, one with a criminal record and one without a prison past, are sent to real employers. Then, objective and comprehensive reports are compiled.

The details of this method are so over-explained in the book that I almost wanted to skip these chapters. And yet, I can see that the explanation of the study is needed because the conclusions are so surprising, even shocking.

Pager writes: “A criminal conviction for a white man does not generate the same level of intensity as it does when presented by a young black male.” In other words, for whites, a criminal record is only one strike. For blacks, it is two strikes.

Wait just a minute. We now have a black president, and race relations have substantially improved. Some columnists have opined that we are now in a post-racial era. But Pager points out, backed by compelling evidence, “The combination of minority status and a criminal record results in almost total exclusion from the labor market.”

How do we begin to remedy the depressing problems that emerge from this realistic research? For example, what can be done politically in Washington?

There is hope. First of all, there could not be a more opportune time for reform. The Second Chance Act was signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush. Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, worked with Republicans like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to pass this bill with overwhelming support.

The act helps states and localities address the needs of people released from prisons and jails. It includes drug and mental health treatment, job training, educational opportunities and housing.

Secondly, President Obama when campaigning expressed concern about the large number of African Americans in prison. Further, the first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, has called for a dialogue on race, while two other African Americans, Congressmen John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Robert Scott (D-Va.), are in influential positions to affect reforms in regard to criminal records.

But what reform should this be? How do we currently “miss the mark,” as Pager titles her last chapter? Her scholarship has made me change my mind.

Here’s the issue. There are presently two movements to reform criminal records. The first is “ban the box.” Many cities have removed the box on employment forms that asks the applicant if he or she has a criminal record. Even though this question is no longer posed, a criminal background check is done later if the person is seriously being considered for the job.

The second movement also bans the box but goes further. It makes a person with a criminal record a protected class similar to a minority or a woman.

Before reading this book, I would have stopped at supporting only banning the box. However, now I think people with criminal records should become a protected class. For Pager shows that “applying while black” is so egregious a burden in our society that a radical remedy is needed. Her findings highlight and begin to address the overwhelming burden young black males with criminal records face in getting a job.

Charles Sullivan, together with his wife Pauline, are the cofounders and codirectors of CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), an international organization of people in prison, their families and concerned citizens.

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