America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates in America. In Texas as in many southern US states, an astounding 1% of all males are currently in prison. People are regularly sentenced to decades in jail for non-violent, first-time offenses such as drug possession. And we know that America’s mass incarceration disproportionately affects minorities.
The effects of a conviction last long after one’s debt to society is repaid. Past convictions keep people from improving their lives in the future; their histories trap them and stop them from moving on. People with criminal records face enormous challenges securing the most basic necessities in life, especially employment. Texas now has over 8 million felony criminal records in its database,* so in a state with 26 million people, a significant fraction of our neighbors will struggle to find a job, not because of their abilities, but because of a past offense.
Job application forms currently include a box that identifies the applicant’s criminal history, which typically rules them out of consideration before they even have a chance. The current movement to “ban the box” in McLennan County would give those with criminal histories a better chance at employment by removing that box from the first round of the application process. They would be judged based on their merits and experience rather than a past conviction. Their conviction would still be made known, but only at the later stage, if they have been identified as a good candidate. The decision to hire would remain with the employer — the change only alters that very first round of applications.
We need reforms that will stop denying employment to ex-offenders. This need is so compelling that I will here illustrate two entirely different lines of thought that could each be used to support the same conclusion, namely a fairer shot at employment for ex-offenders. As an academic philosopher, my work deals with some of the theories of justice and of political order that are debated by scholars and implemented by policymakers. I’ll briefly mention two rich political traditions and show how they bear on fair employment. Pick one of these, or both, or some other argument entirely, but I hope they will illustrate how there are many different arguments supporting fair hiring policies.
The first is from Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, whose landmark 1971 book “A Theory of Justice” has enjoyed enduring influence. Broadly speaking, Rawls’ ideas fit into the classical liberal tradition which says that the function of government is to secure individual liberty and basic rights that are needed for people to live freely chosen lives. At the heart of Rawls’ theory are two principles: 1) that everyone has the same right to a set of basic liberties and 2) that social and economic inequalities are permissible so long as they are generated through fair equality of opportunity, and that they benefit the least-advantaged members of society. Both conditions of the second principle are relevant to our discussion. Both would be closer to being fulfilled if ex-offenders were not facing such severe hurdles to work. One reason is because being denied the right to work directly prevents the equality of opportunity that Rawls articulates. Ex-offenders are not falling behind in the workforce and in economic security because they are lazy or uneducated or not interested in work: they are falling behind because they are simply not allowed to work. A further consideration is that fairer employment would go at least some way towards alleviating America’s increasing economic disparities. Because poorer people are over-represented within the criminal justice system, there is every reason to think that fair hiring policies will be especially helpful to poorer Americans. Because Rawls’ system tolerates inequalities but only when the least-advantaged people are better off, then fairer access to work will help: it would create fairer opportunities and would especially benefit poorer people.
The second line of thought comes from a very different political tradition, developed in part as a reaction to Rawls and other classical liberal theorists, called communitarianism. Communitarianism emphasizes ideals that are often overshadowed by liberalism’s focus on individual freedom and autonomy. For example, communitarians claim that individuals are strongly shaped by social relationships; and when it comes to practical political deliberation, communitarians prioritize the importance of tradition and social context. So this tradition could permit explicitly religious considerations in political dialogue, whereas the Rawlsian tradition would suggest that such “private” beliefs are best set aside for the purposes of public debate, which (it claims) requires a set of universally-held values and premises. If such religious considerations are legitimate expressions of public values, then, given the demographics of the Waco area, Christian values might be marshaled to help the plight of ex-offenders. Christian scriptures have a well-known “bias to the poor” (as it was called in a recent letter from Church of England bishops) that could be used to support reforms helping ex-offenders find employment. Jesus’ peculiar commitment to prisoners and other marginalized members of society suggest that the Christian tradition following his example would take special interest in the well-being of this, and other, disenfranchised people.
These two lines of thought, Rawlsian liberalism and communitarianism, are obviously very different. What unites them is their shared belief that we are all deeply connected with one another. This is an old ideal that has animated many different philosophies — not to mention religions. Aristotle thought it was obvious that our neighbor’s well-being is relevant to our own happiness. The 18th century poet-priest John Donne memorably put it, “No man is an island entire of itself.” And Rawls writes that “In justice as fairness, men agree to share one another’s fate.”
Current policies that unfairly deny employment to our neighbors do not make for fates I want to share. We should do better.
Dr. Eric Martin, Assistant Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, Baylor University
*Source: US Dept. of Justice Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2012