Tackling Employment Discrimination against People with Criminal Records in South Los Angeles.

Mass Incarceration & Critical Race Studies

One of the goals of CRS at UCLA is to address the intersection of various forms of subordination and to increase our understanding of the role of law in this process. American social policy and legal reforms since the 1980s have largely relied on incarceration as a public policy response to issues of crime and social dislocation. These policies have been accompanied by legalized discrimination that strips people with criminal records of various rights even after they have completed their sentences.  Racial disparities have been documented in every phase of the legal processes that lead to criminal convictions in the US, as well as in the experience of discrimination against former prisoners seeking employment.  This initiative seeks to bring together the creative energy of community organizers, law students, and scholars to identify and eradicate these disparities.

The Context:  Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions

A criminal conviction can lead to various obstacles that impede rehabilitation, collectively referred to as “collateral consequences” of criminal charge or conviction. These include barriers to employment, housing, family union, health care, and political participation in government, to name a few. This initiative focuses on employment barriers to reentry, analyzing their implications and studying political and legal initiatives to lower these barriers.

An individual convicted of possession of controlled substances may receive and successfully complete a summary probation of two years. Nevertheless, the individual will likely be evicted from her Section 8 housing and may even be denied other forms of public assistance such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), General Relief, and food stamps. Negative effects of these collateral consequences may be mitigated if the individual can obtain a decent job. Yet there are many barriers to her post-conviction employment that remain largely invisible to the general public and, more importantly, to the individual herself before her conviction, as well as to most of the people in the criminal justice system who prosecute, defend, convict, and sentence her. 

The History:  An Overview of the Race and Reentry Initiative

In 2006, CRS partnered with A New Way of Life, a community based organization in Watts, to address employment discrimination faced by people with past criminal records. The Race and Re-entry Initiative began as the Prisoner Reentry Initiative (PRI), a two year pilot program sponsored by the UCLA Center for Community Partnerships

  • Reentry Legal Clinic: The race and re-entryinitiative led to the creation of a new student-run legal clinic, which trains law students to expunge misdemeanor and felony convinctions, assist in the application for certificates of rehabilitation, challenge denials of occupational licenses, and identify potential claims of employment discrimination. 
  • Research on the Community & Legal Context & Employer Incentives for Hiring Formerly Incarcerated People: CRS students also surveyed and found mixed responses from employers, both public and private, in the greater Los Angeles area regarding their willingness to hire someone with a criminal record. Research shows that too few employers are willing to help people with criminal records reintegrate into our society. In addition to providing legal research and writing support to the policy advocacy and community organizing efforts, CRS students have supported A New Way of Life’s educational advocacy related to employer issues. This has involved translating current laws on the hiring of ex-offenders for materials that can be understood by employees and employers, conducting presentations at employment fairs, and conducting a presentation for staff of the local EEOC office in Los Angeles. 
  • Policy Advocacy (“Ban the Box”): One of the most discouraging stumbling blocks that people with criminal records run into is usually found on the very first page of a job application. It is the question that asks: “Have you ever been convicted of felony or misdemeanor?” Through experience, these job seekers soon learn that checking the box predetermines the fate of their application no matter how well-qualified they may otherwise for a specific job. CRS students assisted representatives from numerous community-based organizations in Los Angeles to petition local governments to relocate this question from the beginning of an application process to the back end, so as to encourage people with criminal records to apply for government jobs and to discourage the government from turning away otherwise-qualified individuals.  More broadly, CRS students have produced scholarship that explores strategies beyond one campaign or policy issue that might provide a more comprehensive solution to the barriers facing individuals and communities impacted by incarceration and re-entry.
  • Online Resource: The PRI also led to this section of CRS Online as an online resource, which we hope will inspire and inform others working to address employment discrimination against people with criminal records, specifically, and the persistent issues of racism in the US criminal justice system.   The current website of the re-entry clinic is updated by CRS alumn, Joshua Kim.