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Sunday, June 23, 2013
WASHINGTON — One of my workshops, “Choose to Change,” encourages participants to figure out why they make bad financial choices.
We discuss the decisions that have led them to their current situation. In the case of a recent session, the participants were all inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.
During the presentation, one woman tearfully described how she sold drugs so she could buy brand-name clothes, shoes and other items for herself and her children. She was trying to make up for what she didn’t have as a child.
“Now look at me,” she said. “I’m in prison, wearing cheap flip-flops, and I don’t have my freedom and any of the stuff I bought.”
I was moved by how forthcoming the women were. Many had similar stories: They committed crimes to support a lifestyle they couldn’t afford but thought they were entitled to. Their testimonies weren’t about offering excuses. They owned up to their mistakes and the damage they had done. They were eager to learn strategies to make better choices.
I regularly volunteer to conduct personal finance workshops for inmates. Most of my sessions are scheduled to help soon-to-be-released inmates. I try to prepare them for the financial pressures they will face. But it’s hard counseling them on how to budget when you know, and they know, they’ll face tough barriers to even finding a job.
That’s why I’m particularly interested in the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against BMW and Dollar General, accusing them of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by using criminal justice history information that had a disparate impact on black applicants.
In statements, both BMW and Dollar General deny any wrongdoing.
Employers aren’t prohibited from obtaining or using criminal records, but how they use the information may be discriminatory, said Christine Saah Nazer, a spokeswoman for the EEOC. The agency maintains that the criminal conviction policies at BMW and Dollar General disproportionately screened out African-Americans without assessing each case individually, the nature and gravity of the crimes, or the ages of the convictions.
When ex-offenders fill out job applications, many have to check a box indicating they have been convicted of a crime. That checked box has become a brand preventing them from getting jobs or even interviews. I’m an advocate for the growing “Ban the Box” movement, which advocates eliminating from applications questions about criminal convictions.
Employers have a right to check the backgrounds of potential workers to ensure they are hiring competent employees who will not jeopardize the safety of their workers or customers. But having a job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison.
When ex-offenders trying to change and become productive citizens can’t find employment, we all lose.
Michelle Singletary is a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post. Her column runs Sunday.
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