Except that’s not really accurate. Rather far from. The reality is more difficult to state, and does not imply that they are simply “barred” from “contributing to the economy”.
First of all, what is a “criminal record”? Even that is a little bit nuanced and murky. If you look online, at least one definition says it means the record of your convictions for crimes. But that’s NOT how the term is generally used. Another site says it includes ALL of your records with the police, including traffic violations. But that too is not how the term is used. In the employment area, it is generally used to refer to mean your record of arrests, charges, and convictions, and employers generally neither ask about nor care about your traffic violations. But you don’t have to have done a crime or be convicted of a crime to have a criminal record. So, what is the truth here?
What is true is that somewhere (nobody seems to be able to state a definite number) upwards of 65 million people in this country have been arrested / charged with a crime. Because they have been arrested, there is or was a police record of them (a “record” more significant than your record of speeding tickets). With arrest, some go on to be charged, tried, and either are convicted or plea guilty. That latter number is not the 70 million cited in the headline.
If an employer provides you with an employment application form (some don’t, they just take resumes – presumably many people are smart enough to keep their arrest records off their resume), many use an employment form that asks about your criminal past. Many such forms ask about “arrests” and some ask about “arrests and convictions”. Some ask instead if you have been “charged with a crime,” which is a little different from “have you been arrested.”
While there may have been a time when merely saying yes to “have you been arrested” would simply prevent you from getting most jobs, that day is not now. It may make it more difficult to get a job, but that’s a different thing. Many states preclude an employer asking blanket “arrest record” questions. In some states the employer cannot use the arrest record for a hiring decision. In general, since having been arrested does not mean you did anything wrong, apparently federal interpretation of labor rules imply that if an employer asks you if you have been arrested, and you say yes, the employer cannot use that unless they follow up and get the details (including what you were charged with, whether you were tried or convicted, and even then they have to establish a relationship between the job and the matter of which you were the subject of an arrest).
It is much more likely that if you have a conviction, that will prevent you from getting a lot of good jobs (but not all). But even there, the reality is more nuanced. For example, even convictions can be expunged from your “record”:
Many youth believe their criminal record is wiped clean when they 18. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUE. Changes in the law have made it more difficult to leave your record behind and get on with your life. If you have committed a less serious crime, your record will be sealed. This means you don’t have to tell anyone except a judge that you have been convicted of a crime as a youth. So, employers won’t be able to find this out. What crimes are serious and less serious? Keep reading. ================================ If you were convicted of a Class A crime (Murder, Attempted Murder, Arson 1, Assault 1, Robbery 1), or a "sex crime" you will never be able to seal your record.
If you were convicted of a Class B crime (Possession of Stolen Property, Burglary, Sale of Drugs, Theft 1), you must wait 10 years, and not be convicted of another crime in order to seal your record.
If you were convicted of a Class C crime (Forgery, Possession of a Firearm, Taking of Motor Vehicle without Owner's Possession), you must wait 5 years, and not be convicted of another crime in order to seal your record.
If you were convicted of a crime for which you had to only perform public service or take a class, your record will be sealed when you are 18.
So, the reality is that
(a) not all employers ask about convictions – so you might get a job there.
(b) not all employers who ask about convictions ask about arrests – so you might get a job there if you were arrested and not convicted.
(c) not all employers refuse to hire people who have an arrest, so you might get a job even you disclose an arrest.
(d) some people who were arrested and convicted have their records sealed, so an employer cannot get or regard that information.
(e) some of the people arrested and/or convicted are not Americans, they are aliens, so even though they are part of the 70 million, they are not part of “70 million Americans”.
(f) some of the people who cannot get jobs receive other income or spend money from other sources, and so they still contribute to the economy.
So it is just not true that 70 million Americans are barred by law or stigma from contributing to the economy.
The statistically correct sub-headline, then, is this:
Some number, with 65 to 70 million as the upper limit, of people IN America, for a time, have _more_trouble_ contributing to the economy, by employment, in their preferred jobs, than people who have not come to the attention of the police.
Just to make sure the article tugs on your heartstrings a little more, there is this nugget:
“We are talking about a large number of people who were never even incarcerated – they received a sentence of probation or had a mere arrest,”
Let’s see what that means: The prisons are full of offenders, so when the jury finds you are guilty, the judge gives you probation instead of a prison sentence. Or, it is a first offense for a non-violent crime, so there is no pressure on the judge to get you off the streets, so he gives you probation. In neither of these cases does it make sense to say anything like “awwwww, you didn’t DO TIME, so we aren’t going to take your conviction for a crime into account.” Is there somehow a principle that lenience / clemency in the courts implies that the REST of society must look the other way and pretend that the crime was no crime? That not having done TIME is what makes me confident you are trustworthy? Why? This is just irrational, sentimental blather without a hint of thought.
There is indeed a problem in our system – actually more than one. First, there are way too many laws, so if the officials want to “get” you, they can always find something. That’s wrong. Second, there are way too many people committing real crimes, things that really should be on the books as crimes. So the natural result will be way too many people in disorder with respect to the state and in disorder with respect to the trustworthiness of solid employment. Third, there has grown up far too much opposition between the officials of the justice system and the people, from the police to the investigators to the prosecutors to the courts. But it is not wrong in principle that employers consider your criminal past in considering whether to hire you. Yes, there are ways to abuse that, but this is not the 1830 France of Jean Valjean, where even a petty criminal was effectively barred from employment as a matter of law (talk about irrational!). And just as we would want, the severity of the crime is (at least sort of, with local variation) reflected in how long your record follows you.
And admittedly, there are states that make expunging your conviction record ridiculously difficult. In Virginia, apparently, you must BOTH prove that you were actually innocent, AND get a pardon for the crime! That’s kind of dumb. And I would think that most states would be pretty easy on cleaning your record of one single arrest (with no conviction) some years after you have had no further incidents, but apparently they don’t see it that way. So there is room for improvement.
But the improvement needed is not to legally bar employers from ASKING, as a blanket rule. This kind of law is silly. And using the actual cases of abuse to claim 65_Million_Need_Not_Apply is even more silly.
If employers are mis-using the information, then target the misuse. It isn’t an abuse to try to find out if a person being hired for a position of trust is trustworthy, and a recent conviction for fraud would surely matter to that inquiry. It isn’t an abuse to try to find out whether an applicant is physically safe to have around, and a recent conviction for assault would surely matter to that inquiry.
And so we find, yet again, there's lies, damn lies, and statistics.