Fighting lifelong punishment
DOZENS OF people turned out to a Seattle City Council meeting to demand an end to job discrimination against ex-prisoners and arrestees.
It is currently legal, and common, for employers to put the question, "Have you ever been arrested or convicted?" on employment applications, preventing thousands of people from even competing for jobs. They are screened out before even being interviewed.
A new city ordinance would bar this question, allowing employers to screen out ex-prisoners only if the job was directly related to their alleged crime. The theory is that once an employer gets to know the ex-prisoner in an interview and looks at their other qualifications, they are less likely to arbitrarily deny them the job. It would still not totally exclude discrimination against ex-prisoners, but it would be a step forward.
Besides being a matter of simple fairness, it is an issue of racism. As Michelle Alexander outlines in her book The New Jim Crow, the criminal justice system is racist to the core. It sweeps up far more people of color than whites.
In the county where Seattle is located, for example, Black men are eight times as likely to be imprisoned as white men. African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans make up only 12 percent of Washington state's population, but are 36 percent of its prisoners. Twenty-four percent of African American men in Washington are denied the right to vote. Those who have lost their voting rights also find it difficult to find jobs and housing.
As Alexander documents, the criminal injustice system is the cornerstone of the "New Jim Crow." It creates second-class citizens technically based on criminal history but actually based in large part on race.
Those who attended the hearing were overwhelmingly in favor of the ordinance. Many ex-prisoners explained the extreme difficulty of even getting to stage one in their search for employment. "I have a juvenile record," said Eva Bible. "I was hired for three jobs and fired each time after a background check."
Another man said, " I am an Emergency Medical Technician. I got in trouble 10 years ago. Since then, the problem hasn't stopped. I have a job now, but when I have to look for one again, I know it will be difficult all over again."
Ed from the Green Jobs Campaign said, "Without this law, incarceration will be lifelong--a lifetime of punishment in the 'land of the free.'"
Many speakers stressed the racism inherent in discrimination against ex-prisoners. Besides those directly affected, the law was supported by the Tenants Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Black Prisoners Caucus and the No New Jim Crow Campaign, which leafleted the audience about the law and future activities.
The only speaker somewhat against the bill was a representative of the Chamber of Commerce.
The city council committee that heard the testimony was sympathetic to the law, but its members said they wanted to get more input, especially from employers, before voting for it. The full council is expected to vote on the law in October or November.
Laws like this begin to chip away at the New Jim Crow and open up the possibility to expose and challenge institutionalized racism as a whole. Antiracists should support laws like this all over the country.