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Boxed In: How a Criminal Record Keeps You Unemployed For Life | The Nation

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Boxed In: How a Criminal Record Keeps You Unemployed For Life

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The millions of people who likely get locked out of the job market as a result of their records aren’t just sitting around. They’re churning through formal and informal part-time work, fueling a shadow economy akin to the one that often exploits undocumented workers. In this case, the problem isn’t the papers that workers lack, but those they can’t shed. The impact is similar nonetheless: billions of dollars in lost productivity, forfeited tax revenue for cities, rampant exploitation by employers, and a cascading series of bans and exclusions from civic life that make it almost impossible for these workers to achieve a stable economic existence. And all of these problems are concentrated in already struggling black and Latino neighborhoods.

Much has been said about the dramatic rise in the US incarceration rate over the past three decades. But it’s difficult to overstate either its scope or the intensity of its racial disparity. After decades of maintaining a largely steady level, in 1973, in the wake of the civil rights movement’s tumult, the incarceration rate began rising sharply. By 2000, 3 percent of the US population was either locked up, on probation or on parole—a rate unparalleled worldwide. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has demonstrated, this trend disproportionately affects people of color—the Justice Department has estimated that a third of black men and nearly a fifth of Latino men born in 2001 will go to prison in their lifetime—and now underpins the stark racial inequity found throughout US society.

Marijuana has become the engine driving that inequity. This past summer, the ACLU reported that black Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite reams of research showing no racial disparity in marijuana use. In New York City, this year’s Democratic mayoral primary was dominated by outrage over the New York Police Department’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” a program by which the NYPD has indiscriminately detained and searched huge numbers of black and Latino men under the guise of hunting for illegal guns. The NYPD’s arrest records suggest that the primary outcome has been to generate marijuana possession busts; in 2012, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis, the program produced a six-to-one ratio of weed arrests to guns recovered.  

Shapriece Townsend found out what this can mean for a young man’s work life while walking home in Brooklyn one night last year, just before his twenty-first birthday. He says two plainclothes officers stopped him and found a baggie of weed in his pocket. Townsend spent the next four nights—including his birthday—locked up and waiting to see a judge. This fact is controversial in itself, since the New York state legislature decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana decades ago, so long as it’s not in plain view. But stop-and-frisk data suggest that Townsend’s experience is typical: his weed wasn’t a crime until cops stopped him and fished it out of his pockets. “I lost a job because I missed a day at work,” Townsend explains, still frustrated by the experience. “I told my boss what happened, and he said, ‘Well, you should’ve called me.’ I couldn’t—I was locked up!”

Albert Martinez, however, is the type of guy the NYPD says it is actually hunting with these searches. He’s a 22-year-old black New Yorker raised in East Harlem’s public housing projects. He split his time between his mom’s apartment, where he slept in the living room to allow his two sisters a bedroom, and his grandma’s apartment, where he found some breathing room. They had food and shelter, he says, but not much else. It’s the seemingly little things that stick in his emotional memory: the fact that he could never have white clothes because they wore out too visibly, or that his mom constantly rearranged the furniture to give herself the impression of having something new. “It just irked me,” he says of her ritual. “I never understood that, until after I got locked up.”

As a teen, Martinez took a vow to avoid poverty. By 17, he was working more than thirty-five hours a week as a grocery clerk while still going to school. He was a month away from getting into the union at his store when he got fired, thanks to a beef with another employee. “After that, I started hustling,” he says. “I was selling weed—nothing major. I was still going to school, never dropped out. And I got arrested for carrying a firearm.”

Martinez is baby-faced, with short braids and wisps of fuzz on his dark chin, but he’s a hulking presence at over six-foot-three and with a linebacker’s build. He considers this heft a liability on the street; it made him a target for people with something to prove. So he started carrying a gun. “It was just a precaution,” he says now, “being prepared for the worst—and a pessimist, kinda.” In December 2010, the cops stopped and arrested him after finding it on his person. Martinez fought the case just long enough to graduate from high school, then accepted the prosecutor’s deal of two years in prison followed by a year and a half on parole. 

He came home this past April, hoping to go straight to work. First he had to find a place to live, a challenge immediately complicated by his conviction. The knock-on effects of a criminal record are far broader than just job bans. A drug conviction will keep you from getting federal student loans, grants or work study. Several states also bar people with drug-related felonies from food stamps and welfare. And cities have passed a proliferating number of ordinances banning people convicted of certain crimes from a range of public spaces, including parks. But among the more striking bans is in public housing.

In New York City, the housing authority can reject a family’s rental application or evict them if any person in the home is convicted of one of several crimes. Families can appeal the decision to a board and ask it to consider the particular circumstances, but the process is daunting. “The housing authority doesn’t have a particularly transparent track record on treating people fairly in these decisions,” complains Legal Aid chief attorney Steven Banks, “and certainly doesn’t have a transparent record without a lawyer.”

So Martinez couldn’t go home—not that he wanted to anyway. His girlfriend had given birth while he was locked up. Their daughter was born premature, weighing just one pound, two ounces, and she required oxygen and a tracheotomy tube to live. They had survived by piling into Martinez’s mom’s apartment with his sisters. But Martinez was dead set on his disabled daughter not sleeping on the same couch that he’d surfed his whole life, even if the city had allowed it. It took some doing, but they convinced the city that they were homeless in order to be placed together in a shelter apartment.

Martinez is young and, despite all this, optimistic. With the help of the Osborne Association, he applied and got into nursing school. He’s working part time as a janitor for Osborne while looking for something long-term, and he’s determined to make his industriousness pay off. “If you holding me accountable for something I paid for, then shame on you,” he says, confident that it will all be ancient history by the time he graduates. “They’re not supposed to deny me employment for a felony I caught five years ago.”

But advocates minding the larger landscape say that if Martinez’s record does fade into the past, his will be an exceptional story. Luis Rivera’s is more typical.

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