Keeping felons from earning a living doesn't make us safer, only poorer

OpEd by Paul Heroux, originally published by The Guardian on March 31, 2015Paul Heroux
I have a lot of titles in my life. I am a husband, father, college graduate, former corporate and small business employee, and retired small business owner. The list is long, and I am proud of it. In Florida, I am also called a “felon.” The title has stayed with me in the years since I served my sentence, and won’t go away.
I am not alone. There are 70 million adults with arrest or conviction records in the United States - or about one in three adults, according the National Employment Law Project. And men with criminal records account for about 34% of all nonworking men of prime working age. That’s a serious problem for our national economy and my local community in central Florida. Though every stratum of society is affected, communities of color are particularly hard hit. People of color are more likely to be arrested and to receive harsher punishments compared to their white counterparts. With little choice, the accused often take a plea deal, unaware of the life-long consequences of having a conviction.
When I tried to re-enter the workplace at the end of my sentence, I spoke with managers who would gladly have hired me. But the job application had “the box” asking “have you ever been convicted?” The managers couldn’t do much about it. I was rejected each time I responded with “yes.” I started my own business largely as a way to get around that barrier.
My business was primarily a painting and handyman service. Most of my customers were homeowners or small business owners themselves. I was very frank with all of them about my felony record. But my reputation for quality work, honesty, and my ability to connect with people helped me to overcome the stigma of having been incarcerated.
I’m grateful that I had the ability to set-up my own company, but that’s not possible for everyone with a record. I was fortunate enough to have the necessary skills to provide a service and I had access to the capital necessary to get my business started.
I joined Main Street Alliance of Florida, a network of local small business owners, to help change that. Along with nearly 200 civil and workers’ rights groups around the nation, we are calling on President Obama to take executive action to ensure that qualified job-seekers with past arrests or convictions are not automatically shut out of employment opportunities with federal agencies and federal contractors.
Although there are currently federal hiring requirements aligned with fair hiring principles, in practice federal agencies have broad discretion to adopt their own hiring policies, often with limited transparency. Executive action would ensure that the federal government fully embraces fair chance hiring in both policy and practice.
We are fighting to remove “the box” from job applications. Not only is it unfair to qualified job-seekers who have made amends for their past mistakes, but the box does a tremendous disservice to employers as well. By blindly screening out a significant portion of the applicant pool, employers may be missing out on some of the best and brightest candidates - people who may turn out to be among the most grateful and hard-working employees.
“Ban the box” and other “fair chance” hiring policies have been adopted with bipartisan support in 14 states, Washington DC, and 100 cities and counties so far. Georgia just became the latest state to ban the box. Republican Governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order on 23 February doing so because the policy will, in his words: “improve public safety, enhance workforce development, and provide increased state employment opportunities”.
These policies are gaining momentum around the country because people are realizing how persistent joblessness translates into economic losses with far-reaching consequences. In 2008, the reduced job prospects of people with felony convictions cost the US economy between $57 and $65 bn in lost output. At the individual level, serving time reduces annual earnings for men by 40%, meaning families too often fall into a poverty trap.
With the labor market gaining strength every month, the Obama administration should waste no time in ensuring that job applicants with past convictions can fairly compete for jobs and help contribute to a stronger economy. The federal initiative will translate into real opportunities, as nearly one in four US workers is employed either by a federal contractor, a subcontractor, or the federal government.
Expanding job opportunities for workers with prior records is fair for our society and smart for our economy. Making sure the path to employment is not blocked for people with records will restore dignity and hope to our communities. I should know. It made all the difference in the world to me.

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