By Jacqueline Conn and Brian McGiverin – Special to the American-Statesman
Imagine a place where crime control policies make neighborhoods safer and allow communities to heal instead of exacerbating the very conditions that lead to crime in the first place. Texas’ carceral state makes us less safe because it has burdened 1 out of 3 Texas residents with a criminal history, creating and maintaining an underclass. This is part of the “New Jim Crow.” But on April 3, Austin became the first city in the South to bring the dream of a better future closer to reality by adopting a reform known as Fair Chance Hiring.
Austin’s Fair Chance is similar to policies adopted in over 100 cities and counties and 21 states. Fair Chance helps restore civil rights to the astoundingly large number of women and men affected by our country’s love affair with mass incarceration. It acknowledges their families and loved ones who depend on them for economic security and gives them the opportunity to provide that security.
We love the idea of Fair Chance because it works. Employment is one of the strongest predictors of desistance from crime. But finding a job is difficult for anyone with an arrest or conviction record and exacerbates the challenges for people who already face discrimination. Fair Chance is linked to improved public safety by reducing crime as much as 57 percent for people with a record.
Fair Chance isn’t just morally right; it is also good for business. Fair Chance promotes increased tax contributions, while reducing the number of people who rely on public assistance due to unemployment. Fair Chance policies increase applicant pools, connect employers with valuable workers and raise the output of goods and services by people with criminal records by as much as $65 billion each year nationally.
We live in the most economically segregated city in the country, with few options for people of color to leave poverty and spikes in homelessness due partly to the collateral consequences of Texas’ crime control policies. Imagine what the future will hold, and how communities and the people within may heal now that there is a path for people to leave second-class status.
The vision for our future is threatened by some who dislike the reality of antidiscrimination. The loudest dissent comes from Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing group funded by conservative interest groups seeking to extinguish progress before it ignites hope.
Their criticism that Fair Chance will “exchange the New Jim Crow for the Old Jim Crow” is illogical and fails to tackle the problem. Racial discrimination will not disappear by ignoring it. Based on current trends, 1 in 3 black men will serve time in their lifetimes — and even more will have a record. Rather than fearing that employers may respond to reduced access to conviction records with racial discrimination, we must educate employers of the law as well as existing antidiscrimination laws. This is an opportunity for business and government to work together for the good of the community.
As is typical of moments in history, meaningful change is being told its intent is noble but its goals are off. This is the argument used throughout history against civil rights. In spite of our tremendous victory, conservative groups will likely take this fight to the state, as has been the case throughout history. Yet, in a state that has oppressed people of color for centuries, we must ask ourselves: How much space in this conversation do we allow the privileged few — the few who argue against working to end a racial caste system — in our own communities?
La lucha sigue. The struggle continues.
Conn is chairwomen for Second Chance Democrats. Brian McGiverin is an attorney with Dietz, Lawrence & McGiverin Law Center.