To Reduce Prison Population, Stop Denying Employment

Posted on 25 May 2011

By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli and Michelle Natividad Rodriguez

The US Supreme Court this week upheld a 3-judge federal court order requiring California to significantly reduce its prison population in two years. California will not have to let any inmates out early to achieve this reduction – but it will need to slow the rate of putting people back in. About 60 percent of people (the highest rate in the nation) will be returned to prison in California within three years of their release. The state’s shamefully high re-incarceration rate is driven by many factors, but perhaps the most pernicious are practices that all but ban employment of formerly incarcerated people. Denying jobs to people with a conviction history punishes us all.

Criminal background checks for employment are inescapable in most industries today. Although many employers have legitimate reasons for employee screening, in a recent report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a survey of online job postings on Craigslist revealed that both large and small employers are engaging in the systematic, unlawful rejection of people with convictions or arrests.

An estimated 65 million Americans – or more than one in four adults – have been arrested or convicted at some point in their lives and face barriers to employment as a result. Often these workers are being turned away for jobs for records that are completely unrelated to the performance of job duties. A huge portion of records involve drug law violations. Over 1.6 million people were arrested for a drug law violation in 2009 alone, 1.4 million of them for a possession offense and about half for marijuana. Even when a worker can show rehabilitation, too often employers are rejecting people with any mark on their criminal records.

Not only is this practice of using criminal records as an absolute bar to employment unfair, it is illegal. Fortunately, there are legal remedies for this type of discrimination and in 2010 courts saw a significant increase in cases challenging employment practices that systematically exclude people from jobs with a conviction or arrest.

Given the breadth of the discrimination and vastness of the population of people with criminal records, a multitude of strategies to improve the employment prospects of people with a criminal record must be implemented. In additional to litigation, sentencing reform that reduces the criminal penalties at the front end may be another viable and popular approach.

According to a new Lake Research poll surveying 800 California general election voters, a whopping 72% support reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor, including a solid majority who support this reform strongly. Given the higher stigmatization of people with felonies as compared to misdemeanors, this reform could have a significant impact on reducing job barriers for people with criminal records.

The March survey, which was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of Northern California and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, found that support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses all the partisan, regional, and demographic lines that normally divide California voters. Solid majorities of Democrats (79%), Independents (72%), and Republicans (66%) from every corner of the state overwhelmingly agree that it’s time for a new approach. The consensus is so broad and so strong, that politicians stand in the way of this sentencing reform at their own risk. A 41% plurality of those surveyed say they’d be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor, compared to just 15% who say they’d be less likely. Poll results and analysis are available online.

Some of this support comes from an interest in reducing waste in the prison system. But according to the survey, Californians aren’t just interested in saving money. California voters understand that a life-long felony record for drug possession makes it tough to find a job or support a family. Instead of a lifetime of punishment, voters want people to be engaged in society by contributing to their communities and thereby increasing the well-being and public safety for all Californians.


Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is deputy state director in Southern California with the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs. Michelle Natividad Rodriguez is staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and co-author of the recently published 65 Million “Need Not Apply”: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment.

Published on California Progress Report (


3 thoughts on “To Reduce Prison Population, Stop Denying Employment

  1. And by the way- we do have privacy laws that are suppose to protect us from unreasonable persecution- like every employer out there, including state and gov., who thinks they should have a right to deny employment for misdemeanor convictions that are 10+ yrs. old. It’s blatant discrimination….and that is all that it is!


  2. I think we spend a lot of time focusing on the kind of crime and legitimizing it- because @ least it wasn’t a violent crime, but keep in mind that pushing someone, slapping someone, or a whole slew of complaints, can be categorized as violent- if someone chooses to press charges against another. And we should all keep in mind that “violent” crimes are a bit more subjective and harder to prove- as it usually required two people engaging in some type of mutual exchange and a whole lot of here say. I’m not saying always- but that is usually the case w/ “violent” crimes…not all of them are as violent as they would have us believe- remember they’re trying to win cases, not look like idiots. Far too many people have gone to death row, because our justice system didn’t want to admit that it made a mistake, (someone had to pay). Domestic Violence and DUI are the two most condemned misdemeanors in America today- and the most common and most lucrative- for the state. Both of these crimes are generally done either A) unknowingly- due to intoxication. Or B) as a reaction to a perceived threat- real or otherwise (and since most of the domestic cases involve only 2 people- and two witnesses, it can be quite difficult to separate “who did what.” And contrary to what the state would have you believe, most domestic violence or DUI’s do not result in serious injury or death. If our system is trying to punish people for breaking the law than wouldn’t it reason that those in possession of felonious drugs (that kill, not only the user but those that the user might distribute to). People who distribute drugs and/or use drugs, are doing it knowingly- unlike alcoholics- they know what they are doing, at the moment they are breaking the law. Addiction is addiction and a drug is a drug- they are both dangerous. And the biggest difference is- alcohol is legal! I think our appointed government officials should come to the table and bring “much needed” change to our legal system- and they should start by allowing adults, w/ old misdemeanors, to expunge their records. And then felons can get their old felonies expunged. Felons shouldn’t be exhonorated, while those w/ misdemeanors are held to a higher standard- that is WRONG! After all, misdemeanors are a lesser crime- allegedly!


  3. Hello I saw a tweet that lead me to this blog. I would like to say I TOTTALLY AGREE !! I am the founder of 2ND CHANCES 4 FELONS.(2C4F) I assist felons all over the USA with finding employment & resources in their city and state. I DO THIS FOR FREE & DO NOT RECEIVE FUNDING !! I know how hard it is on felons because I AM ONE. I had interview after interview where I was told that I could not be hired because of my background. I have never tried to conceal that fact that I am a felon. I was always upfront and let them know I am not the same person as I was then. (over 12 years ago) Today I am a mother and my mindset is no longer that of a child. I am a full-time college student studying for a BA in business. I was convicted at 18. I am 31 now. After continuiously hearing no I was very angry, so I started my company. I used my anger as motivation . A lot of people see the word FELON and they lose interest in the person. The fact that it happened 12 years prior did not matter at all. I understand that there are some felons who do not deserve second chances BUT there are some of us who do. I just want to thank you on behalf of myself & the felons I assist THANK YOU. I spend countless hours writing about this topic daily so this means more to me then you could imagine. Please check out my website to get a better understanding of what 2C4F is all about.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s