Statement of Principles
Justice for Work is a coalition of organizations spanning the political spectrum that seeks to lower unnecessary barriers to participation in the labor market for those caught up in the justice system. We believe work is an intrinsic source of worth, earned success and well-being. Federal and state policy therefore should support access to work for Americans of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, misguided policies frequently hold individuals back.
The coalition brings together conservatives and liberals; former law enforcement officials and justice-involved individuals; policymakers and think tanks; and workers and employers. Our mission is to raise awareness and advocate for lowering the barriers created by laws and regulations that unnecessarily restrict economic participation.
For those who face the challenges of poverty, finding, maintaining and advancing in a job are the most important steps toward permanent self-sufficiency. For those exiting our prison system, stable work provides the strongest path for reintegration. For those who face a sudden economic disruption—such as job loss or a serious health condition—ease of access to the labor market is essential. And finally, for others, earning extra income through contract work can be an important avenue to bolster their family's happiness and security.
Unfortunately, government-erected barriers to work stand in the way of each of these populations. Federal and state policies such as occupational licensing, fines and fees and inaccurate biometric background checks serve to exclude people from the dignity of earning a living and providing for their families.
An additional complicating factor is that the nature of work is changing rapidly. Technological advancements could eliminate many low-skill jobs that currently serve as first rungs on the economic ladder. New technologies mean workers need new skill sets, work arrangements and flexible benefits.
Too many Americans are needlessly locked out of today’s workforce, and we are desperately behind in ensuring workers are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. Both of these problems can and must be tackled at once. The time has come to unleash the unique contributions of everyone seeking to fulfill their passions and talents through work.
Despite our differing backgrounds, each member of the Justice for Work coalition recognizes the importance of work for both individual well-being and for thriving communities. We also acknowledge that, too often, government stands in the way of success. We believe policies regarding access to work should begin from the following principles:
1. Jobs are our best tool for reintegration.
Having access to a job is a vital part of the process formerly incarcerated persons face when they seek to reintegrate into society. Many of these individuals lack the social capital or financial flexibility for long, extended job search periods. If they don’t have the means to pay for rent or food, they may feel trapped and become more likely to commit future crimes. Furthermore, people with criminal records often are disqualified from social benefits and housing, making access to paying work even more important.
These don’t just affect adults, they affect youth as well. The majority of youth who come into contact with the juvenile court system have one court contact and never return. Nevertheless, juveniles face incredible hurdles after criminal justice contact. Juvenile adjudications can present barriers to schooling, employment, professional licensing, subsidized housing, military service, and college entrance.
More fundamentally, we believe that, after an individual has paid his or her debt to society by serving time in a correctional facility, we should stop penalizing them for past mistakes and foster an ethic of second chances.
2. Barriers to work should be minimal and are only justified under strict public-safety standards.
Today, nearly a third of occupations in the United States require some form of occupational license. Such regulations require individuals to undertake thousands of hours of training, and pay vast sums of money, to obtain permission from state governments before they can pursue a career as a florist, interior decorator, barber or coach. These rules may be justified in some professions, such as doctors, where there are legitimate public-health concerns. But in most cases, they are superfluous and counterproductive.
Policies that take an overly-precautionary approach to public safety have had deleterious effects on society. Often, these policies are pushed by entrenched industry groups who seek to suppress competition and continue to enjoy what economists call "monopoly rents."
Federal background checks also frequently serve as a needless impediment to economic opportunity. Results from these databases are incomplete and include arrest records employers shouldn’t be considering. Source databases are designed for law enforcement, not employment screening
These facts highlight the precarious wisdom of overreliance on criminal background checks for hiring practices. They may be necessary for some jobs that feature repeated interactions with customers in private settings or where there are few checks on behavior, but the vast majority of jobs do not meet these criteria.
3. Federal and state regulations should support the modern workplace.
In the coming decades, AI-powered autonomous vehicles, food-preparation systems and drone deliveries could eliminate many low-skill physical jobs that currently serve as the first rungs on the economic ladder of opportunity.
Americans need fresher and better skills, newer models for delivering benefits and more relevant job training. Our organizations will not all agree on the details of what the path forward should look like, but we are unified in the belief that a more dynamic labor market is key to social mobility and a just society.
Though the work the coalition could undertake to address this problem is vast, there are three main areas ripe for reform at the state and federal level. Justice for Work seeks to bolster these efforts, lending support to innovative ideas to help them become law, improving proposed solutions and championing effective solutions in states where they haven’t yet taken hold. Our three highest priorities are:
Easing prisoner re-entry
We recognize reentry is larger than employment, and support reforms to ease other collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face. Economic obstacles can be complicated by the physical and mental health problems, disqualification from educational grants, and exclusion from public housing. Easing barriers to employment is just a starting point for reentry reform.
Supporting alternatives to incarceration: We believe technological innovations can play a key public-safety role, without disrupting current or future job prospects. We should continue to encourage businesses and governments to find ways to extend job opportunities to disadvantaged communities, while using new technologies to ensure safety.
Ending policies that enshrine protectionism or otherwise lock people out in the name of public safety.
Unhelpful licensing regimes ought to be rolled back. In most jurisdictions, hairstylists have to undergo more training than police officers. As a policy goal, we should rethink the types of careers that require licensing, reduce unjustified training hours and streamline the process to start work.
We support reducing the use of background checks. The FBI’s Next Generation Information (NGI) database should not be held up as the gold standard for background checks, or enshrined as a legal requirement for those seeking economic opportunity. Depending on the state, a significant percentage of FBI’s arrest records do not include information about final disposition — such as whether the individual was convicted, acquitted or whether charges were dropped. This is especially damaging for minority groups who are arrested at disproportionately high rates.
Other restrictions embedded in licensing regimes include blanket prohibitions on individuals who have committed certain types of crimes—even decades after that crime was committed—and without consideration for whether the data support a finding of increased risk. Restrictions should be evidence-based. In particular, we should scrutinize carefully any restrictions on workforce participation that do not have a clear nexus with the job in question. While these policies may have been passed to improve safety, most have proven ineffective. They instead serve to deter individuals in low-income and minority communities from pursuing careers in these fields.
Increasing access to flexible work arrangements, benefit structures, and job training opportunities
Expanding job-training opportunities: Currently, too many open jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. Many of those with criminal records are underemployed--employed in part-time or temporary positions when they are seeking permanent, full-time employment to support their families. The rapid pace of technological change will only exacerbate the problem of Americans being unprepared for the jobs of the future. Further steps also should be taken to help those leaving the correctional system gain access to the coding and technology job fields.
Creating portable benefits structures: Tying benefits to a job reduces mobility in the labor force and harms individuals in alternative work arrangements. States should allow firms to experiment with benefit-delivery models, with the goal of allowing individuals in any type of job to have access to low-cost benefits that are chosen by the individual to meet their needs and can follow them to any type of work arrangement.
We therefore support a variety of mechanisms to address this issue, including lowering barriers to technical education; supporting work-focused dual enrollment for high school students, particularly at-risk youth; encouraging partnerships between employers and community-college systems; and expanding access to on-the-job training.