It has become routine. You apply for a job, and your potential boss asks you for permission to conduct a criminal background check. For those who have no criminal history, such a check is not an issue, but for the millions of people who have been convicted of a crime, a background check is a significant barrier to getting a job.
In the last few years, the federal government has begun putting pressure on state and local governments to adopt stricter policies that prevent using criminal background checks as a way to discriminate against current and prospective employees. In 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued BMW. A federal court found the company used criminal background checks as a pretext to deny employment to a disproportionate number of otherwise qualified African American candidates for jobs at its manufacturing plant in Greer, South Carolina.1
A similar result occurred when the EEOC sued Pepsi for discrimination based on criminal checks that adversely affected the employment of over 300 African Americans. In 2012, the soda manufacturer was ordered to pay $3.13 million to those former employees and applicants.2
The Problem of Race and Criminal Background Checks
Racial disparities have long been an issue in our criminal justice system. For instance, African Americans and Hispanics represent 58 percent of all incarcerated people in the United States, but only comprise 25 percent of the U.S. population. One out of every six black men in the U.S. has spent time in jail or prison.
The overwhelming number of men and women that are behind bars in this country are there because of drug offenses. Though statistics indicate that there are five times as many white drug users as there are black drug users, nearly 60 percent of people in jail or prison for a drug offense are black.3