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Economic opportunity is key to preventing crime

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San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center. (Michael Ares/2015 Special to the S.F. Examiner)
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California is in the midst of a fundamental transformation of its criminal justice system, with policymakers realizing that economic opportunity is the best crime-fighting tool around.

Nowhere is this shift in our laws and our values more vividly displayed than in the juvenile justice system. Just this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law several bills that ease barriers to employment for justice-involved youth. Assembly Bill 529 requires that a juvenile’s arrest records be sealed if his or her case is subsequently dismissed, while Senate Bill 312 expands a trial court’s discretion to seal juvenile records for certain convictions.

These bills arose out of a growing literature on the impact a criminal record has on employment prospects. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that a criminal conviction reduced employment rates among similarly situated job applicants by 23 percent. Another study found that men who reported criminal convictions during job interviews were 50 percent less likely to receive a job offer or callback — with the disparity even more pronounced for African-American applicants.

These restrictions on gainful employment are one reason that our recidivism rates remain stubbornly high. One workplace development agency found that immediate employment for those released from prison reduces re-offense rates by more than 80 percent. When you factor in the lost economic capacity of these formerly incarcerated individuals, the cost of these employment restrictions is roughly $60 billion in lost GDP.

Of course, employers have an obligation to ensure a safe working environment for their employees and customers. But research from the Kellogg School of Business found that employees with criminal records actually worked longer (reducing costly turnover) and were no more likely to be fired than those without records.

Driven by a combination of morality and economics, a nationwide movement has taken foot, aimed at better integrating those returning from prisons into our labor market. In recent years, almost 30 states have adopted “ban-the-box” policies, either delaying or eliminating questions about criminal history on job applications. In 2015, President Barack Obama adopted a similar policy for federal agencies.

As is often the case, San Francisco has led the charge in this effort. In 2014, The City enacted the “Fair Chance Ordinance,” which prohibits city contractors and large private companies from asking prospective employees about arrest or conviction records on a job application. (Employers may still perform a background check later in the hiring process before they make an offer.)

The City has also encouraged youth employment through the “Youth Jobs+” initiative and the “Project Pull” summer internship program, with a particular focus on helping kids in our juvenile justice system. The results have been tremendous, with the Juvenile Probation Department placing young people currently on probation with city agencies, ranging from its own IT team to Recreation & Park. Even more encouraging, private companies like UPS, Target and Safeway have begun hiring teenagers on probation for summer and full-time positions. The idea of Fortune 500 companies hiring young people still serving their sentences would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago.

Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done. Reports indicate that some employers have responded to “ban-the-box” policies by systematically discriminating against African-American job applicants, improperly using race as a proxy for criminal history. And just this summer, the Connecticut State Bar provisionally denied admission to Yale Law School graduate Dwayne Betts based on a two-decade-old juvenile conviction for stealing a car. Only after the denial sparked widespread outrage, and a petition that garnered more than 120,000 signatures, did the State Bar reconsider its ruling and allow Betts to pursue his dream of being a lawyer.

So if you own a business, think about expanding the net the next time you are hiring. It is not only good for the applicant and good for society; it’s good for business.

Leif Dautch is a prosecutor and commissioner on the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Commission. The views here are his own.

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