Remember years ago when you were down on your luck, out of a job and so desperate that you decided to steal $300 worth of merchandise from a department store? You don’t remember that? Well, your record shows that you were convicted of larceny. Still don’t remember? Oh, that wasn’t you at all? Well, your potential employer is now looking at that incident on your criminal background report because the person convicted of that crime has your exact same name.
I know, sounds extreme; but according to the Attorney General, in 2006, nearly 50 percent of FBI background checks were actually incomplete or somehow inaccurate, primarily due to arrest records that were not updated by local and state authorities, and because of incidents of mistaken identity.
Last Thursday, U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, reintroduced the Fairness and Accuracy in Employment Background Checks Act (H.R. 5300). This bill, which has received strong bipartisan support and the endorsement of a broad spectrum of civil rights and labor organizations, would improve the reliability of criminal background reports.
The new bill would require the FBI to update and maintain accurate arrest information before it is released to potential employers; and like the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it would require that those who are subjected to these background checks have an opportunity to view a copy of their record. If passed, this bill would also bar “non-serious” juvenile and adult offenses from being cited on reports prepared for employment screening, and provide fair and timely procedures for workers to challenge inaccurate records.
While background checks are often unnecessary and inherently provide their own set of barriers to employment, that hurdle is raised when the very instrument employers rely on is flawed. Therefore, if this is what our society has chosen to use as a criterion for employment, it is imperative that the report is as accurate as possible. This bill presents an opportunity to protect individuals from potential abuses associated with criminal background checks and to reduce the amount of resources employers waste on appeals processes for candidates who were unfairly denied a job.
In this fiscal climate, to unnecessarily impede a person’s pathway to employment should be seen as nothing less than unconscionable. Now is the time to maximize every opportunity to put people back to work.
Our policymakers should seize this moment of fiscal hardship to advance policies that not only advance the nation’s recovery efforts, but do so in a manner that will simultaneously increase the fairness of processes and outcomes. I’m glad to see that some of our policymakers are rising to the occasion.