I’m preparing my presentation on workforce ethics for tomorrow evening’s class at the house of corrections. The class is Basics of a Job. I’ll be going over stuff like filling out job applications and showing them various forms that they have to complete. Essentially, I want to give the students an overview of the employment process from application to first day on the job.
So here’s a question. What do you say about a gap in your work history when that gap is a result of incarceration?
Here in Massachusetts employers can’t ask anyone about a criminal history prior to the interview stage of the hiring process. Also, employers cannot ask about a person’s criminal history if there was no conviction, first offenses for certain misdemeanors, convictions for misdemeanors older than five years, sealed records and juvenile records.
I did a quick internet search for what to say about gaps in one’s employment record. Of course there’s a lot of advice for people who got laid off or released from a job. There is the usual stuff around putting down your volunteer work. There is stuff about taking time off to care for an ailing parent or family member. Let’s not forget that great catch all, consulting. But nothing around explaining a gap in one’s employment history because of incarceration.
What would you say? You can’t lie, and I will tell them that tomorrow. Still, what do you say?
This search reminded me that those who have been incarcerated are not like everyone else. Actually, if this search is evidence, we sort of don’t think about them. And yet, this nation has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. The National Council on Crime and Deliquency published a report in November 2006 which noted that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 738 per 100,000 people. The next highest, the Russian Federation, has 607 prisoners per 100,000. And the average global rate is 166 per 100,000.
It’s sort of staggering to think about . We can point to all sorts of reasons for our high incarceration rate. Regardless of the reason, though, doesn’t this point to something that we’re overlooking in our criminal justice system?
I read today’s article in The New York Times about bringing our criminal justice system to its knees by having no one plea bargain. The article noted that more than 90% of the criminal cases in this country do not come before a jury. The article went on to say that “if everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation.” Imagine what would happen if everyone exercised his or her constitutional right? And if our current system is so thin, doesn’t that tell us that we have too many people in the criminal justice system?
Maybe we need to look at ourselves through the lens of the criminal justice system. That the practical advice to inmates about employment gaps doesn’t exist is one thing. But that we have such a high incarceration rate, especially in light of the rest of the world, taken together, are we treating our prisons as warehouses and not necessarily as “houses of correction?”
Let’s just add a little bit more to this. The NCCD report also noted that blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. For Latinos it’s twice as likely. If we were to reduce our disproportionate minority incarceration rate by 50%, our national rate would fall to 491 per 100,000 or about fifth in the world. What does this lens say about our race relations?
We should be concerned. As we’re beginning to concentrate our of fiscal situation, we can’t ignore the impact our criminal justice policies have on it. Our high rate of incarceration increases our expenses at both the federal and state levels. It’s tens of thousands of dollars every year for every inmate. And we fret about our budget.
Maybe we need a different approach to criminal justice. Maybe we need a different approach to how we live in and define community. Does it mean putting more money into our schools or supporting social services better? Does it mean paying people decent wages? Maybe we need to think of our expenditures on social programs as investments and not as operating expenses? Maybe we need to be more honest with ourselves about race?
Clearly, something is not right. I’ve only had one course in criminal justice at the college level (fascinating course taught by an ex-con who got his PhD while incarcerated). Still, I can’t ignore our high incarceration rate in comparison to the rest of the world, and I can’t forget how little we care about inmates who will be released from incarceration – we can’t even tell them how to explain a gap in their employment history.