I stop by the convenience store near my house a few times a week. It is the only store for a few miles in either direction, on a rural stretch of highway. There’s a stop light, the divided highway, a single train track, the convenience store, and then 55+ trailer parks, tomato fields, and cow pastures leading out to the bay. If you drive south on the highway, you hit the county line.
In other words, it is a perfect target for crime. Easy-in, easy-out, with little traffic and a good view of the people coming and going. The women who work as cashiers there are world-weary. They are bitter and fatalistic about the fact that they keep getting robbed. When I spoke with one of them a few weeks ago, she seemed a little embarrassed that she was even upset about the latest armed robbery. She looks like somebody who has had few breaks in life and has learned not to complain. She stands less than five feet tall and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, as they say. Like most of the store’s employees, including the security guard they have hired, she is a senior citizen. Once you get to be in your sixties, it’s hard enough to find work.
Frustration was visible in her eyes as she described the robbery-before-the-last-one. She gets up and goes to work every day, and then she has to deal with constant worry when she gets there.
The store is part of a chain, and the owners have spent significant amounts of money on security, which, of course, gets passed on to all of us. They installed cameras and hired a security guard. Now there are signs in English and Spanish telling customers that the cashiers will not change large bills and that cash is deposited into a locked safe during business hours. The next step, I suppose, is bulletproof glass, but the employees will still have to come out from behind the glass to stock shelves. It is no way to live, sitting behind bulletproof glass. And (shades of Florida, and the generational divide) what will happen when the cashiers need to go outside to smoke their cigarettes?
Apparently, the robbers never get much cash, but this does not stop them from coming back. The cashier looked jumpy as she told me this. She is angry that these men would rob working people. She is angry that her life is being put on the line for a handful of twenties and a few rolls of change. “They took quarters,” she said, disgusted.
Meanwhile, last Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke before the National Institute for Justice about ways the Justice Department is working to reduce the stigma of having a criminal record. “Prisoner re-entry” is the feel-good buzzword of the year. The feds are gearing up to spend massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on programs to help criminals “re-enter” society (I worked for a man who got a grant from the City of Atlanta to do this: he was supposed to teach repeat offenders how to produce rap videos as “job-training.” I suppose it is a silver lining that he did not really bother to do the work).
Now the Justice Department is sponsoring research that looks to me to be laying the groundwork to conceal criminal records from prospective employers — on the unsurprising grounds that employers tend to choose non-criminal over criminal applicants for any given job. The idea that people who do not have criminal records actually merit a leg-up over people who have committed crimes is not the type of idea that gets bandied around in research circles, of course.
Attorney General Holder feels the problem lies not with the character of people who commit crimes but with the way the public perceives people with criminal records. He said:
Most employers perform criminal background checks on everyone they consider hiring and have varying levels of concern about the criminal records of prospective employees. That means that people with criminal records are always vulnerable to being turned down for a job. In many cases, employers may want to hire an otherwise qualified person, but they feel that his or her criminal record suggests a future risk of criminal conduct. Without some ability to assess whether a person with a criminal record presents a greater risk than someone else, they prefer to err on the side of caution and pass him or her over.
This new research – which is preliminary and ongoing – has found that there may well be a point at which someone who has committed a crime is no longer at any greater risk of committing a future crime than someone who has never committed a crime before.
Why not let employers decide whether or not an ex-felon seems to have reformed himself enough to merit being trusted with a job? Is it now out of bounds to suggest that acknowledging one’s criminal past is part of rehabilitation? Holder apparently feels it is within the mission of the Justice Department to reform (conceal?) the reputation of people with criminal records, even at considerable cost to the rest of us — the employer who is liable if someone they hire robs them or harms someone else while on the job; the safety of employees who are not made aware that their co-workers are ex-felons.
What Attorney General Holder did not say is more telling than what he did say. He did not mention punishing criminals as deterrence, of course (such talk is strictly taboo). He did not address the needs of people who have been victimized. What he chose to speak about was the needs of ex-cons and his desire to change the way other people perceive them.
How exactly, one might ask, would researchers determine the “point at which someone who has committed a crime is no longer at any greater risk of committing a future crime than someone who has never committed a crime before”? This sort of stuff smacks of manufacturing desired results. Can anyone imagine criminologists announcing, at this stage of the game, that their “preliminary and ongoing” research has actually revealed that employers are taking unacceptable risks when they hire people with criminal records? No, the point of funding this research is to support the Attorney General’s stated goal of “prisoner reentry.” The table is set in advance. Statistical justifications will doubtlessly follow.
To put it another way, the head of the law enforcement branch of our government has nothing to say to the hard-working convenience store clerk down the road from me who keeps getting robbed at her job because he has chosen, instead, to offer job assistance to the men who keep robbing her.