Give Women a Second Chance—Our Economy Depends on It | Opinion

April marks Second Chance Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of the barriers that many justice-impacted individuals face when reentering society and to highlight policy solutions that could ensure returning citizens have a fair opportunity to reach their full potential. It also marks two full years into the COVID-19 pandemic, which, despite some gains, has disproportionately forced 864,000 women out of the workforce. For justice-impacted women—especially Black women—this "shecession" has only exacerbated the permanent recession that millions of women and families impacted by criminal records were already facing pre-pandemic.

Nearly 1 in 2 children in the United States has a parent with a criminal record. Every year, the stigma of a criminal record denies millions of families access to fundamental resources that can mean the difference between charting a path toward future prosperity and being stuck in a cycle of poverty and recidivism.

High-quality jobs can be hard to come by when 9 out of 10 employers use criminal background checks to make employment determinations. One study from the University of Michigan Law School found that job applicants with a criminal conviction are 60 percent less likely to receive a callback than those without a criminal record. Employment opportunities become even more scarce when you factor in occupational licensing requirements, which exclude people with a record from as many as 25 percent of all jobs, regardless of their qualifications. It's no wonder the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated individuals was more than five times greater than that of the general public prior to the pandemic.

Now, despite the record 7.9 million jobs created during the Biden administration's first year in office, many women—particularly those with less educational attainment and women of color—are still being left behind when it comes to job growth. These disparities are only compounding the challenges women with a criminal record already face when trying to find a good job. Far too many women have either been laid off or pushed out of the labor force, and limited job openings and growth in industries that predominantly employ women will almost certainly lead to a number of long-term setbacks, including economic insecurity, financial instability and food and housing insecurities. The economy wasn't working for women even before the pandemic, and these trends only reinforce the need for critical investments, such as a national paid leave program that help women stay in their jobs while caring for their families.

While the U.S. has seen faster economic recovery under the Biden administration, workers with records—who are typically the "first fired, last hired" in down economies—are likely to face elevated unemployment well beyond a full recovery. Justice-impacted women, who were already disadvantaged in a pre-pandemic job market, cannot afford to wait years for job opportunities to become available, especially when a person's chance of successfully reentering society decreases the longer it takes to find a job. If these women are going to have any chance of living up to their full potential—and if the country wants to ensure a full and equitable recovery—policymakers at all levels of government must prioritize removing barriers to employment opportunities for women with records, in tandem with the nation's continued recovery efforts.

Second Chance Month is a pivotal time for lawmakers to commit to enacting policies that give directly impacted women a true shot at rehabilitation and break down barriers to the job market. One of these policies is automatic record-clearing, or clean slate. Clean slate laws seal or expunge criminal records using automation, without the hassles of a typical petitioning process that keeps most eligible people from ever having their records cleared.

A silhouette of a woman
A silhouette of a woman and her dog. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a clean slate law, helping close to 1 million people in just the first year reenter the workforce. This included Khalia Robinson, who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor in 2006. Although she was never convicted, her arrest record left her struggling to find work. But when Pennsylvania's clean slate law took effect, her decade-long struggle to overcome the stain of her criminal record came to an end seemingly overnight. Today, Khalia has the benefit of owning her own business, without having to worry about the impact her record may have on her business or future job opportunities.

Utah, Michigan and Delaware have also enacted their own clean slate laws, and several other states are following suit. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are recognizing the need to bring record-clearing to the federal level through the bipartisan Clean Slate Act, which would establish the first federal record-clearing remedy by petition and establish automated record clearance of certain federal drug offenses.

Fair chance employment measures, such as fair chance licensing and fair chance hiring (also known as "ban the box") policies, can also help justice-impacted women. Fair chance licensing laws prohibit licensors from denying occupational licenses solely based on an applicant's criminal record. Similarly, fair chance hiring measures prohibit employers from even asking about a person's criminal history until an offer has been made later in the hiring process.

These and other second chance measures would ensure the growing number of justice-impacted women who face the challenges of a criminal record—with even fewer reentry resources than their male counterparts—aren't shut out of the nation's workforce. Now, as women continue to bear the brunt of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Second Chance Month should serve as a timely reminder of the need to center justice reform to ensure a full and equitable recovery that doesn't leave justice-impacted women and their families behind.

Akua Amaning is the director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.

Sheena Meade is the executive director of the Clean Slate Initiative.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.