Twenty-one-year-old “Ms. Smith” was recently denied a job at a grocery store because of a conviction on her record. She tried to explain the circumstances of the conviction to the employer: she was charged with “terroristic threats” — a misdemeanor — for comments she made toward her abusive ex-boyfriend who was harassing her. As the sole caretaker for her child, Ms. Smith couldn’t afford to risk prison, so she pled guilty.
But the back-story of her conviction didn’t matter to the grocery store. Now she has a record. Smith, whose name was changed to protect confidentiality, is one of 406 young people in the Philadelphia area who have sought help from one legal assistance agency over the past two years because they experienced employment obstacles arising from a criminal history. The majority of these young individuals aged 17 to 30 are women of color.
With attention on the burdens of the criminal justice system focused on young black men, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia compiled the statistics to highlight that some collateral consequences have an even greater impact on young black women. Although women are less likely to have a criminal record to begin with, and those records are less likely to be violent, they face particular barriers to employment. Even though their crimes frequently derive from physical abuse, substance abuse, or interpersonal conflicts, some employers look at criminal records with equal disdain, regardless of how they got there.
“A lot of the policy attention focuses on young black men and that’s completely understandable,” said Community Legal Services staff attorney Jamie Gullen. “But a lot of these female clients we’re working with they’re the sole breadwinners for their families, they’ve got kids, and this is the time in their life when they should be building career experience … and a lot of them are just completely locked out of the workforce.”
Other studies tell similar stories elsewhere. In Houston, Texas, the Urban Institute found that 34 to 36 percent of women secured jobs in the months after prison, compared to 48 to 60 percent of men. And a recent study commissioned by the National Justice Institute found that 57 percent of male job applicants with a prison record would have been called for a job interview, compared to just 30 percent of women.
There are several potential causes for this female penalty. One identified by Community Legal Services is that a larger proportion of women seek the sorts of jobs — retail and caregiver jobs — that erect particular blockades and outright bans on those with criminal backgrounds. The National Justice Institute has another potential explanation: that society imposes an “additional punishment for women in that they violated employers’ gendered role expectations. Put differently, women with a prison record are seen as having committed two offenses, one against the law and one against social expectations of how women are supposed to behave.”
This societal expectation may be particularly strong for minority women. But all individuals with a criminal history struggle to find employment after incarceration. In Philadelphia, Gullen said criminal history obstacles to getting a job are “by and large the main reason people come into our office for employment help.”
Philadelphia already has what is known as a “ban the box” law, which prevents employers from asking applicants to check a box about their criminal history on an initial application form. But this law is only a first step. Employers can still conduct a background check or ask about this history later in the process, and they do.
In those instances, that small minority of individuals who seek legal or other assistance have a few potential remedies. If they committed a very minor “summary” offense, they may be able to get their offense expunged. A select few others may get a pardon from the governor. For everybody else, lawyers assisting these individuals are working to enforce the limits on employer criminal history policies set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC guidance says employer policies cannot be too broad and must consider a number of factors about the nature and date of the offense.
Another of Gullen’s recent clients was a young woman convicted as a juvenile. A male student was bullying her in high school, and under the school’s zero tolerance policy, both students were arrested for disorderly conduct. Ironically, while many offenses that occur as a juvenile don’t stay on your adult record, low-level crimes known as “summary offenses” translate over to adult records unless expunged, although the legislature is now considering reform. Now, that conviction is an obstacle to her employment as an adult.
“Disorderly conduct” is one of several catch-all offenses that punishes a range of “public nuisance” behavior with great police discretion. “Terroristic threats,” the offense that snagged Ms. Smith, is another such crime. “These types of offenses can be very vague and subjective, and situations like this can be misconstrued and escalated,” Gullen said. Sometimes, these guilty pleas and convictions never result in jail time. But for most, they’ll never leave their record.