Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell deserves some props. His recent proposal to prevent most Seattle employers from looking at a job applicant's criminal history until late in the hiring process isn't the sort of idea that's likely to do wonders for his political career, but it just might help alleviate a serious and often ignored problem in our city and throughout the country - high rates of criminal recidivism due to the simple fact that those who've been released from prison can't find a job.
Naturally, KOMO's story indicates these new rules wouldn't apply to jobs where employees interact with vulnerable kids, people or senior citizens, and there would be exceptions for cases where public safety is involved.
While there's surely a slice of the population that harbors little-to-no sympathy for the previously incarcerated, statistics simply don't lie. According to a 2010 study by the Washington State Department of Corrections, the criminal recidivism rate for those released from prison in our state in 2006 was 31.1 percent. Furthermore, the three-year recidivism rate for those released in 2006 and sent to prison for property offenses was 43.7 percent, while those incarcerated on drug charges and released in 2006 notched a 29.9 percent rate of recidivism.
Any way you slice it, that's a whole lot of people heading straight back to prison.
And it's not very surprising. Spend any time at all talking to those who've been to prison and you're likely to hear about the difficulties of finding a job after being released - especially in a troubled economy. It only makes sense that if those fresh out of the slammer had more legitimate opportunities for gainful employment they'd be less tempted to resume the criminal lifestyle that got them in trouble in the first place.
Or, at least it's worth trying.
Harrell, apparently, agrees.
Harrell said more than 409,000 people have criminal records in Seattle and more than 114,000 people have arrest records.
"There are many reasons why people recommit, and recidivism is so high because they can't get access to jobs," he said.
"What we're saying is let's look at the person. Let's look at the human being, and then we make wise employment decisions from there," Harrell said.
He's dead on.
Of course, it's worth noting that a law like the one Harrell is proposing, in practice, could end up as largely symbolic. Whether an employer looks at an applicant's criminal background right off the bat, or after several interviews, city-mandated regulations will never be able to erase biases and fears. If passed, it will be up to Seattle's businesses to acknowledge the problem Harrell's proposal is designed to help, and play along for the greater good.
That said, the fact we're having this conversation at all is a hopeful start.
Find the 2010 Department of Corrections study "Recidivism Revisited" on the following page.