When a home health care worker’s criminal record was expunged by a New York district judge earlier this year, the decision thrust the issue of employment discrimination based on past criminal convictions into the spotlight. For an industry that anticipates a shortage of caregivers in the future, the ruling was a boost for a growing movement to reduce or eliminate criminal background checks that bar employment.
The New York Times editorial board recently took to the opinion pages to voice support for the decision in the case, which concluded in May. The woman, named only as Jane Doe in court records, filed an application to have her record expunged after being unable to keep a job in home health care. Her past conviction of fraud—though not relevant to health care—has led to her firing at least “half a dozen times” over the past decade, court records show. Her record was expunged by the same judge who sentenced her in 2002, though no federal laws allow for expungement, the NY Times reported.
The ruling marks a changing attitude about criminal convictions in the United States. Several states and U.S. cities have adopted “Ban the Box” legislation over the past few years in an effort to increase fair chances for people with criminal convictions to be hired. This type of legislation bans the “box” where applicants are asked to answer if they have ever been convicted of a felony. While some of these laws do not prohibit employers from conducting a criminal background search later in the hiring process, the initiative aims to help an employer consider a job candidate’s qualifications without the stigma of a conviction.
There are nearly 70 million people in the U.S. living with a criminal conviction, or nearly one in four adults, who are subject to thousands of laws that can prevent employment and prohibit many other rights, according to the NY Times. The restrictions and consequences can follow Americans throughout their entire lives, even after completing sentences for non-violent, minor crimes.
The woman was involved in an insurance fraud case from 2001, where she netted just $2,500 for faking an injury following a staged car accident. She was sentenced to five years of probation, 10 months of home detention and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $46,701 by U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson in March 2002.
Gleeson granted her request after finding that her criminal record was preventing her from keeping a job as a home health worker.
“There is no justification for continuing to impose this disability on her,” Judge Gleeson wrote. “I sentenced her to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.”
The court documents also cited a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to the State Governors that noted how past criminal convictions “impose additional burdens on people who have served their sentences without increasing public safety in essential ways.”
“Simply put, the public safety is better served when people with criminal convictions are able to participate as productive members of society by working and paying taxes,” Judge Gleeson wrote in his ruling.
Written by Amy Baxter