Advocates call for Ontario government to increase protection for people released from jail, with criminal records

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By Meagan Gillmore

Employment enables people to find housing, a crucial component for staying out of jail. Employment also gives ex-prisoners the opportunity to build social networks that can keep them away from incarceration and build their dignity.

A recent report from the John Howard Society of Ontario says hiring people with criminal records needs to become a priority.

The report, “The Invisible Burden: Police records and the barrier to employment in Toronto,” details how Toronto employers use criminal records in the hiring process, and the impact this has on job-seekers.

The report’s recommendations include that the government:

  • Strengthen human rights protections for people with criminal records,
  • Make employing people with criminal records a government priority; and,
  • Provide financial incentives like wage subsidies or tax incentives for employers.

Community organizations key to helping people find work, reducing government costs

Natasha Smith understands how important employment is for people recently released from jail. As the employment services coordinator at The Bridge Prison Ministry in Brampton, Ont., she helps men find work after their release. Her aid includes helping them write resumes, prepare for interviews, and get ready for the workforce, whether that’s helping them improve their computer skills or getting appropriate clothes for interviews.

Last year, 20 men who came through the program found work, and most were still working six months after landing jobs, Smith says.

The Bridge received $67,000 in federal funding to run its employment program, Smith says. That’s significantly less than the cost of incarceration. According to Correctional Services Canada, it cost approximately $116,000 to incarcerate one person in 2015-2016.

Employment, “saves the government a lot of money,” adds Smith.

A recent article, “Community and the Crime Decline: The Causal Effect of Local Non-profits on Violent Crime,” published in the American Sociological Review last October, showed a connection between the presence of community not-for-profits and decreased crime rates.

Researchers wanted to know what impact these organizations had on the drop in the crime rates in the U.S. from the 1990s to the 2010s. They looked at data from 264 cities and found that for every 10 organizations in a city of 100,000 people, murder rates dropped by 9%, violent crime decreased by 6%, and rates of property crime lowered by 4%.

It’s not just social concerns that motivate The Bridge.

The Bridge also receives funding from churches, and although not everyone who works there is a Christian, the organization has a “very ministerial presence, and focus in what they do,” says Garry Glowacki, The Bridge’s executive director. He said Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25 about visiting people in prison is one of the inspirations for the organization’s work.

Job-seekers and employers face invisible barriers

Released earlier this year, the John Howard Society report, “The Invisible Burden,” draws on surveys with 35 Toronto employers that have 100 employees or more. Researchers interviewed those involved in the hiring process and performed focus group discussions with people who have criminal records.

The report describes a “significant Catch 22 in our society: the expectation that people must move past their criminal records while simultaneously putting up barriers that keep them from doing so.” Or, as one individual who has a record put it, “My police record has turned me into a bum.”

Most employers surveyed – 60% – require criminal record checks for all new employees, often because of company policies or to manage risk and liability.

The report cites research from the U.S. that indicates people who have criminal records are 50% less likely to get a callback after an interview. Some employers refuse to hire people with criminal records – even if the offenses on the records happened years ago or are for crimes not related to the job an individual is seeking. 15% of employers interviewed by the John Howard Society said they won’t hire people who have criminal records.

Employment is crucial as it enables people to find housing, build social networks, and be a part of a positive community. These help people stay out of jail.

It’s a “vicious cycle,” the report states: “Individuals with police records are barred from and stigmatized in the labour market; on the other hand, stable employment and jobs are fundamental in preventing individuals from criminal involvement.”

A criminal record “affects you in every way, discourages you to reach your goals and dreams,” one participant told the John Howard Society.

A large part of Smith’s job at The Bridge involves building men’s self-esteem. “Oftentimes, individuals with a record are their own worst barrier because they’re very hesitant to apply for work because they feel that they won’t get it because they have a record,” she says. Smith surveys men when they enter the program, and has found they often say they feel nervous and scared when they’re released.

Employers also have fears.

The John Howard Society report says some employers have negative perceptions of people with criminal records.  More than half – 57% – admit to not knowingly hiring someone with a record, 19% said they think employees with criminal records could have a negative impact on other employees; 38% said they think people with criminal records are a greater risk or liability.

The report mentions there’s little research about job performance among those who have criminal records. Existing research does not clearly indicate if people with criminal records are better or worse employees than those who don’t have them. Generalized conclusions can be hard to make:  “at the very least it would be troubling, and perhaps even counterproductive, for employers to assume that all applications with records will perform poorly if hired.”

Some employers told the John Howard Society that potential employees shouldn’t mention their records at the beginning of an interview because they felt this information would skew the interview against the candidate.

Employers said financial incentives would be the best thing to help them hire people with police records. The report recommends those be created.

Inconsistent laws put people at risk

Inconsistency in human rights protection and criminal records complicate matters. Ontario police record checks may include non-conviction items. This could include records of people being charged, but not convicted of a criminal offence, 9-1-1 calls, being a witness, suspect, or victim in a police investigation, or an informal contact with police.

Withdrawn charges, arrests, acquittals, and stayed charges may also be included. These records can appear on police vulnerable sector checks.

Local police services prepare police record checks; there’s no standard used across Ontario. The Police Records Check Reform Act provides standards for all police record checks across Ontario. It was passed in 2015 but is still not in force.

Provincial human rights laws protect against employment discrimination for people who have had their record suspended, formerly called pardoned, or who have provincial offences like parking or speeding tickets. There is no explicit protection for people who have non-conviction records. They are legally innocent, but have little, if any, legal protection against discrimination. The report calls this an “absurdity,” and recommends the government should explicitly protect people from discrimination on the basis of any record of offences.

Bill 164, the Human Rights Code Amendment Act, which would allow for this, passed second reading in October 2017.

At The Bridge, Natasha Smith credits the success of the programs to the men she helps.

“A mutual relationship is the premise of our program and what keeps it working,” she says. “I cannot provide support if the men are not willing to participate and put forward the effort, we find that many of the men who go through our program do try.”

Not everyone finds work, but those who do find an “increased sense of purpose and fulfillment,” she says.

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