Uber should keep hiring the formerly incarcerated
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You may have heard that district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles are filing civil suits against ride-sharing giant Uber for misleading customers about the quality of its background vetting. At last Wednesday’s news conference, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón complained about “systemic failures in Uber’s background checks." The offices found 25 instances in which the company failed to identify criminal charges, ranging from murder to pedophilia, against their drivers. 

Uber's main line of defense has involved singling out Live Scan, the background checking mechanism employed by most other medallions. The startup touted their own methods in the New York Times, claiming that while no system "is 100 percent foolproof," Uber's investigations through Accurate Background, Inc. and Checkr are sufficiently robust. For many, that's the crux of the debate: whether or not Uber performed its obligatory due diligence. Some are furious that the formerly incarcerated have driven thousands of unwitting users. Others believe these suits are cherry-picking the few ex-offenders that went undetected. 

Yet, this parry and thrust between critics and defenders will never find a resolution. And for good reason—the media blitzkrieg has less to do with actual safety and more to do with our treatment of the formerly incarcerated.

It can be difficult for someone with a criminal record to find employment. More than 80 percent of U.S. employers perform criminal background checks on prospective personnel according to a study by the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice. For the 70 million Americans with an arrest record, that’s an immediate barrier to reentry and to becoming a productive member of society.

The existing body of research also tells us that employment plays a critical role in reducing recidivism. That’s hugely important given 67 percent of ex-offenders return to prison on our tax dollars within three years of release; most could not find a secure job and returned to a life of crime, addiction, and poverty.

Uber has been open in the past about the limited scope of its background checks. In a July 15 blog post entitled “Details on Safety,” Uber affirmed its use of Accurate and Checkr. It even pointed to state statutes compelling the company to help rehabilitate offenders.

“We understand that there are strongly held views about the rehabilitation of offenders… But the California state legislature decided — after a healthy debate — that seven years strikes the right balance between protecting the public while also giving ex-offenders the chance to work and rehabilitate themselves.”

But why use Accurate and Chekr over Live Scan, the trusted the background checker for teachers, medics, and other professionals? I can give you one reason. Live Scan, which combs through official Department of Justice and FBI databases, assesses fingerprints as well. While that sounds innocuous enough, Live Scan regularly unearths expunged and sealed records. In 2014, a Wall Street Investigation even found that Live Scan flagged people who had never been charged let alone convicted. Whether you’re an innocent individual or someone who’s served time for a past transgression, it’s heartbreaking to lose an employment offer.

“Sometimes it’s a good thing that employers use their own [background check] methods because they’re deciding to do things that are way more inclusive,” says Jon Tippens, co-creater of ExpungeMaryland, an easy-to-use Web application that assists ex-offenders in expunging their criminal history.

“However,” he adds, “there’s a lot of danger when employers start using their own methods and don’t disclose them in their entirety. If you’re an individual that’s seeking employment opportunities, you’re checking that your records are expunged to the best of your knowledge. The only way you can guarantee that your expungements are actively working, up-to-date, and accurate is if an employer discloses their methods.”

This may be where the company falls into murky territory. In Uber’s “Driving Jobs vs. Driving with Uber,” it articulates that an Uber driver merely needs to pass a background check. There are no enumerated specifics. Interestingly, it does assert that Uber Taxi – the joint venture between city-approved medallions and the startup – must pass a Live Scan fingerprint test.

It took a fair amount of extra digging online to find clear disqualification criteria, which include speeding tickets and burglary. However, Uber's website acknowledged that I wasn’t reading “an exhaustive or detailed list.” As Tippens mentioned above, this poses a danger of asymmetric information to both customers and potential drivers.

As for the felons who bypassed Uber’s background checks, Tippens recognizes that the hazard is universal to any employer. “I’m not sure that issue is unique to Uber… It’s not necessarily an Uber problem but an any company problem.”

It’s easy, and frankly pretty lame, to say that Uber allows murderers and rapists to drive us around. Uber screens out hundreds of high-risk drivers… many of whom, unfortunately, still drive city taxis. When using any hospitality service, there’s always a small risk that you take on as a consumer.

But there’s something more important at stake. We overlook that the media brouhaha around Uber’s hiring practices can hinder good-willed reentering citizens. 700,000 Americans leave prison each year. Most are non-violent offenders looking for a job, the gateway to successful re-immersion into the community. We should hope that more companies institute fair screening for those with past convictions. By coming at Uber with pitchforks, businesses will be less likely to open up opportunities for ex-offenders in their workplace. There are already so many collateral consequences for those with a criminal record, from the inability to rent an apartment to voting in an election. If we care about civil rights, we should look at these civil suits more holistically and instead applaud Uber – and companies like Walmart, Koch Industries, and Target – for committing to end hiring discrimination against returning citizens.

Singareddy is a student at Columbia University studying history and statistics. She is president of Columbia’s Roosevelt Institute, a progressive political think tank; a community organizer for Fight for $15; and a Columbia University Senate staffer. She works for the Elections Unit at NBC. You can follow her Twitter for political commentary and irreverent humor: @singareddynm.