For the first time in 25 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refined its guidelines on discrimination against people with arrest or conviction records.
The law already warned that making hiring decisions based on arrest records or criminal convictions "may, in some instances, violate the prohibition against employment discrimination."
But under the new guidelines, passed late last month, an employer's use of arrest and conviction information from background checks has to be "narrowly tailored" to the specific job. In short, writes the EEOC, an arrest or conviction shouldn't be used to disqualify applicants unless the conviction is related to the job itself.
That theoretically is good news for many communities where job discrimination has rippled through neighborhoods and hurt the social fabric and mental health of its residents.
A group of Chicago-based researchers from the Institute on Social Exclusion found low-income communities of color, such as Englewood, that see higher instances of incarceration and arrest are most affected by employment discrimination.
The Institute, part of the Adler School of Professional Psychology, focuses on social ills, like employment discrimination, and the impact on mental health.
In a recent study of 250 Englewood residents, researchers found that 40 percent said an arrest never led to a conviction, but they still experienced employment discrimination.
The individuals questioned also lived in a highly policed community, which may account for the high number of people with arrest records but not convictions.
According to data the researchers gathered from the Chicago Police Department, between March 2006 and January 2010, the 7th Police District (which includes Englewood and West Englewood) saw 64,000 arrests.
"The population is not much more than that," said Lynn Todman, executive director of the Institute on Social Exclusion.
Employment discrimination based solely on arrest records "has huge implications for ... a community," said Todman. "We found that the influence of arrest records on mental health is that those people who have been arrested have greater psychological distress and lower life satisfaction."
Therefore, Todman welcomes the improvement to the EEOC guidelines. The policy change is "an important ray of hope and can be leveraged to help the community," she said. This, in turn, "has huge implications for the mental health and well-being of the entire community."
"Increased employment could impact social cohesion," said another researcher working with Todman.
Tiffany McDowell, a research associate at the Institute on Social Exclusion, said solidarity or unity among neighbors is a key factor to a healthy community.
The research found social networks to be strong in Englewood, but that better employment opportunities would further "lower likelihood for mental illness and addiction."
"People with arrest records and low employment opportunities talk about feeling depressed," said Todman. "One woman told us: 'It makes you want to go back to jail.'"
Michelle Alexander called widespread discrimination based on criminal convictions or arrest records “the new Jim Crow" in her book of the same name. She told Democracy Now! in January:
I think most people have a general sense that when you’re released from prison, life is hard, but, you know, if you work hard and apply self-discipline and stay out of trouble, you can make it. But that’s true only for a relative few. You know, when people are released from prison and have a criminal record, they are discriminated against for the rest of their life in employment. For the rest of their life, they’ve got to check that box on employment applications, knowing that application is likely going straight to the trash.
Legally, there is a wide difference between an arrest and a conviction for a crime, but employers often fail to see the nuance, said McDowell.
In a 2004 study by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found that 60 percent of employers admitted to hesitation about hiring an applicant with a criminal record.
"We've heard that people tended to feel like they are targeted living in the community," said McDowell, "they are penalized whether or not they have a police record."
About 65 million people, or 1 in 4 Americans, have an arrest or conviction record, according to a report done by the National Employment Law Project last year. And The Sentencing Project estimates that more than 60 percent of people in prison now are people of color.
Along with studying the effects of discrimination on mental health, researchers are also working to educate people about how the EEOC's new guidelines will affect their employment rights, and educate employers about their responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act.
"We want to help residents understand they can have a voice," said McDowell.
© Community Renewal Society 2012
Photo credit: Vectorportal