When an Employer and a Federal Prosecutor Praise Giving a Second Chance

WorkerAmong numerous stories I’ve come across about people with criminal records turning their lives around, a recent story from the Quad-City Business Journal caught my attention. The story involves a trio who served time in federal prison for trafficking meth, the employer who hired them, and the federal prosecutor who described their employment relationship as “just terrific.”

Sally Hillman, Frannie Spickers, and Brian Nimrick were all convicted of trafficking methamphetamine. Upon completing their prison sentences, they searched for employment. Usually, a job search for people with past convictions can yield very few results, especially in the current job market. Even when employers are willing to take a chance on someone with a criminal record, those employers often do not expose themselves publicly out of fear of becoming stigmatized.

In this story, though, not only did Hillman, Spickers, and Nimrick find work with Greystone Logistics, but this Bettendorf, Iowa-based manufacturing company openly acknowledged its policy of giving second chances to people with criminal backgrounds. A plant manager explains:

It really comes from the heart. Sure we get great workers with good attendance and good attitudes. But when you hear their success stories — such as getting to see family they had not seen in years — and they are genuinely grateful to have a job and a place to plant their feet to start again, to get that second chance, you know you are doing the right thing.

It makes you want to go the extra mile when you are made aware of the discrimination they have to endure to get a job, to rent an apartment, etc. We truly do want to give these great people a re-chance to adapt and to become a productive member of society. Without employment it cannot be done. When you have that "Grampa" who gets to see his  9-year-old grandchild for the first time, and he is doing everything right so he can see his grandkids, how can you not do this for them?

This chance for Hillman, Spickers, and Nimrick was a chance not only to work, but also to succeed. The story notes, for instance, that Spickers has been working to move up the company ladder since joining Greystone Logistics as a janitor nearly two years ago.

Another other notable person pleased with the trio’s success is Jeffrey Lang, the federal prosecutor in the meth trafficking case that originally landed them behind bars. Now the acting United States Attorney of the Central District of Illinois, Lang praised their story as an example of how the criminal justice system is supposed to work:

The system protected the public back then. They are rehabilitated and now they are productive members of society.

Lang’s words echo a speech by Mr. Lang’s counterpart in the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, who reminded us that like law enforcement, businesses have an important role in ushering people from prison and jail back into society. Greystone Logistics has stepped up to that challenge quite well.


The U.S. Census, Arrest Records, and Employment Discrimination

The U.S. Census rejected 69-year-old Evelyn Hauser from a job because of her past arrest, even though she was never formally convicted and even though she hasn’t had any interactions with the criminal justice system in the nearly three decades since. The federal government didn’t have a problem with her criminal record when it hired her for the 1990 Census, so a class action lawsuit is asking: “What’s the problem now?”

Ms. Hauser is one of the named plaintiffs in Johnson v. Locke, a federal class action lawsuit challenging the Census’ screening practices for applicants with arrest records. The purpose of this lawsuit is to effect “simple changes to the Census’ hiring process that not only reduce its discriminatory effects, but will promote the public interest by expanding [its] hiring base in historically under-counted communities, thereby helping to achieve [the federal government’s] mandated goal of counting all who live in the United States.”  

The screening process goes like this: for every person who applies for one of these over one million temporary but well-paying positions, the Census runs an FBI criminal background check. If an arrest turns up, the applicant is ineligible for employment unless she can, within thirty days, produce a court document describing the disposition, i.e., outcome of the case.   

There are several problems with this screening system. First, the FBI database is notoriously incomplete. Half of all arrest records in the database are missing dispositions, which means that a significant number of applicants with arrests will have to track down these court documents. The 30-day requirement is especially burdensome for Ms. Hauser and other people whose cases predate the computerization of court files. 

Second, without having a complete picture of an applicant’s criminal history, the Census risks basing its hiring decisions on arrests and thus violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employment policies that unjustifiably and disparately impact racial minorities. Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII – advises employers that bans on people with arrest records discriminate against racial minorities. Not only do racial minorities experience higher arrest rates, but arrests also have limited value in screening applicants since they are not reliable indicators of criminal activity.

As a result of this screening process, the complaint notes, “All applicants, whether or not they will work with the public, who have an arrest record at any point in their lives – no matter how trivial or disconnected from the requirements of the job – face an arbitrary barrier to employment.”  All Ms. Hauser wants, though, is to “continue contributing to her community.”

For more information on this case, visit the Census Worker Class Action Website.