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Rural white-majority geographies have a criminal justice problem, too

(Rizky Panuntun/Getty Images)

The nation just concluded observing Second Chance Month to raise awareness of the consequences of criminal convictions. One of the most significant ramifications of their criminal records is their inability to obtain employment.

According to research from the Society for Human Research Management, 9 out of every 10 employers use background checks. Upon discovering prospective employees’ prior incarceration histories, many of them automatically decline their applications, even when they served for a minor, nonviolent offense. As a result, the unemployment rate for nonviolent offenders, currently at approximately 38-percent, is far higher than that of the general populace.

This problem is far from a small one; it affects millions of Americans every year. Over 70 million Americans have a criminal record, 9 million have received a felony conviction and 113 million have an immediate family member who has spent time in jail or prison.

While the world has known of this issue’s scope for decades, the demographics behind who it affects have remained largely a mystery. Historically, low-income urban communities have received most of the attention on issues relating to incarceration and unemployment, and few if any have inspected whether low-income rural communities experience the same negative correlative effects. As our contribution to Second Chance Month, we pooled together the collective insights and resources of Texas Southern University — a historically Black university — and Utah State University — which primarily serves a white, rural student body — to produce a study that answers this question.

After compiling and utilizing databases on demographics, sentencing, crime, rurality, and child poverty rates, we found that rates of incarceration differ little between rural white-majority geographies and urban Black-majority geographies. Residents of both are imprisoned at nearly identical proportions at both the state and congressional district levels. Predictably, those with criminal records in rural white majority geographies and urban black majority geographies also experience increased risk of recidivism and the same rates of unemployment.

Given the results of our study, it is no longer a surprise why the majority of the country supports criminal justice reform, including across party lines and within the 100 wealthiest and 100 poorest congressional districts. They know that it will have sizable benefits for their local communities.

The current practice of shutting former prisoners out of the workforce reduces annual GDP $78 to $87 billion. This reality is far more than a mere statistic for many areas of the country. They feel the effects of its consequences every day.

Businesses everywhere, large and small, are experiencing labor shortages. These worker shortfalls are fueling inflationary and supply chain pressures that affect the price and availability of goods across the country. Making it easier for a large segment of the population — rehabilitated nonviolent offenders — to enter the workforce can put considerable downward pressure on this nationwide problem.

It would also benefit law enforcement and public safety. Our study showed that criminal records correlate with an increased risk of recidivism across all geographies, which makes intuitive sense given that for years, the data has demonstrated that having a job reduces the likelihood that one will commit crime. That is because employment gives ex-offenders purpose and hope and allows them to feel like part of their communities again.

Evidence suggests that society also receives downstream benefits from former nonviolent offenders receiving employment. For example, new research from the RAND Corporation found that more than half of American men in their 30s have criminal records. That is a problem when present and non-abusive fathers have been found to reduce violent behavior among adolescent males in particular. As such, investing in programs that increase employment opportunities for former nonviolent offenders — thereby increasing the prevalence of involved fathers — appears to present a clear societal good.

The federal government, along with many states, counties, and municipalities, have already proposed and enacted many initiatives to make it easier for individuals with criminal records to find work, including but not limited to work training, work release, vocational training, and initiatives to “Ban the Box,” which would remove questions about one’s criminal record from hiring applications. These initiatives have proven to work well at rectifying this crisis, and policymakers should continue implementing them whenever appropriate.

Congress should also consider passing the Clean Slate Act, which would create an automatic sealing process for nonviolent drug-related crimes and create a brand-new streamlined petition process for sealing other qualifying, nonviolent crimes.

This bill, which already has the support of the chairs of the Republican Study Committee and Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, appears to be the most comprehensive and tailored solution to addressing the negative relationship between one’s criminal past and employment prospects. It is modeled off similar bills passed in a consortium of other states, including red Utah and blue New Jersey, which have proven effective. Congress should consider it without delay.

It is now abundantly clear that the issue of criminal justice reform in general and employment for non-violent offenders in particular is not merely a white or black — or blue or red — issue. It affects every demographic and region of the country equally and is worthy of every member of Congress’ attention. The sooner they come to terms with remedial solutions to this problem, the better off we all will be.

Howard Henderson, PhD is the founding director of the Center for Justice Research and Professor of Justice Administration at Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities. Stephen G. Van Geem, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Utah State University.

Tags criminal justice reform

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