South Carolina has made significant progress reforming its criminal justice system. The 2010 Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act reduced the number of people the state imprisons, 2018 expungement legislation vastly expands the number of people and kinds of convictions that qualify for expungement, and the Department of Corrections has taken important steps to increase services for people returning home.
But our state still unfairly discriminates against people with criminal records, effectively locking them out of the job market.
South Carolina is one of 17 states that has not yet eliminated the question about a criminal record on employment applications. It’s well past time we eliminated the question, an effort known as “banning the box.”
This year the South Carolina Legislature has a chance to pass House Bill 3436, which would ban the box for all state employment applications. If enacted it would expand employment opportunities for thousands of South Carolinians and set an important precedent for local municipalities and private businesses to follow suit.
South Carolina has the ninth-highest growth rate in the country and our unemployment rate is 3.8 percent. Yet people with criminal records are locked out of this opportunity far too often. Research estimates that 1,170,540 South Carolinians have an arrest or conviction record that serves as a permanent scarlet letter.
For the over 600,000 people nationally who come home from incarceration every year, over 60 percent remain unemployed a year after they return. A recent Prison Policy Initiative report found that unemployment for people with records is as persistent as it is perpetual: 27.3 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. We cannot set up people to struggle just to barely survive, especially when research shows that work is often the primary determinant of whether someone coming home from prison or jail successfully reenters society.
Such an astronomical rate of unemployment means that about a quarter of people with records cannot find a job and, therefore, cannot begin to rebuild their lives and those of their families.
The numbers become all the more startling when we begin to look at how black and brown communities are marginalized from the labor market. Among formerly incarcerated black women and men, the rate of unemployment is exceptionally higher than their white counterparts, at 43.6 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.
Even when people find access to employment, it is often temporary or periodic, making life precarious for not just the individual but their loved ones as well. Again, the numbers speak volumes: In the first full year after release, 55 percent of formerly incarcerated people earn a median income of $10,090, not nearly enough to feed a family. The prison term may have ended, but for South Carolinians the sentence continues.
We have to change that. And in that clarion call for change, we are reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech on poverty and opportunity in this country. In it, he cautioned leaders that it is fine to tell a man to lift himself by his bootstraps, but that it is callous to “tell a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
If South Carolina is to be a state that truly believes in redemption, it is the responsibility of lawmakers to ensure that every person in the state has boots by which to begin to lift them up. Passing House Bill 3463 would do just that.
Kambrell Garvin represents District 77 in the S.C. House of Representatives. Lester Young is the South Carolina statewide organizer for JustLeadershipUSA.