The University of Alaska is an equal opportunity employer — unless you have a criminal conviction. If that is the case, then UAA joins countless other employers in the systemic discrimination against convicted people.
Currently, any applicant for UAA employment who admitted having a prior conviction is subjected to an extra hurdle in the hiring process. This hurdle takes the form of an email, and it requires the applicant to write out what they did and why their employment, if selected, will not adversely affect UAA. The written response must be detailed and supported with official court documents.
The requirement is invasive and humiliating. Although the applicant has 15 days to produce a satisfactory response, the selection process for the job will continue as normal. This means that applicants without criminal convictions are more likely to be selected, while the convicted applicant wrestles with this extra hurdle.
It doesn’t matter if the convicted applicant is more qualified for the job. It doesn’t matter if it was a little shoplifting misdemeanor from adolescence. If you answered “yes” on the criminal history webpage, then you will get dragged through the mud before UAA blesses you with employment. It is time for UAA to remove this extra hurdle and judge applicants solely on the basis of experience and performance.
UAA implemented this criminal disclosure requirement with good intentions. UAA Human Resources has a prerogative to support a diverse and quality workforce through effective applicant screening. Providing tools to weed out dangerous gangsters is understandable in a general sense.
As with many good intentions, however, reality ends up singing a different tune. The truth is, dangerous gangsters do not apply for UAA. MS-13 doesn’t seek out professorships in the far north and Anchorage’s methamphetamine traffickers do not dream of working the ticket booth at a Seawolves sports game. That leaves people with lesser convictions. According to the State of Alaska’s criminal offense records, the most common crimes are traffic-related misdemeanors such as drunk driving, reckless driving or driving with a suspended license. There is also a plenitude of crimes categorized as “nuisance,” which includes disorderly conduct, trespassing and mischief. Environmental crimes include littering, fishing and hunting violations. These three categories are the most likely to show up on an applicant’s criminal disclosure statement to UAA. None warrant dragging the applicant through an extra hurdle.
Supporters of UAA’s current screening regime would insist that the intention is only to identify applicants with theft or violence convictions. This is still problematic. For example, a shoplifter is not necessarily a kleptomaniac. But that is exactly what UAA’s criminal disclosure requirement inadvertently assumes. This needs to be understood even in the context of violent crime. A bar fight could turn a person into an assault or battery felon, but it is not reasonable to assume that person will be violent in all other instances. Applicants will have already served their time or paid their dues when they apply for work. UAA needs to stop assuming that each convicted person is a habitual offender.
If the written criminal disclosure requirement is eliminated, UAA will still be able to satisfy its responsibility to maintain a safe work environment. The emphasis must be placed on the interview process and the quick investigation of employee misconduct. In the interview, the university department doing the hiring must be equitable. Hiring managers are especially vulnerable to discriminatory bias.
The New York Times reported that hiring managers nationwide are complicit in intentional and unintentional bias against applicants with criminal convictions. Given that inconvenient reality, UAA’s hiring managers would serve their mission of impartiality better if they never knew about the applicant’s run-ins with the law. The second point that UAA should focus on is the quick investigation of employee misconduct. There could be a situation where a university employee engages in inappropriate behavior, of any degree of severity. UAA’s ability to investigate and take proportional action on that will be the basis in which we judge a safe work environment. In other words, the security of a workplace is better served by investigative action and transparency than it is by locking certain applicants out because of their histories.
Several municipal and county governments around the United States have adopted “Ban the Box” legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal records. Alaska may or may not be ready for that. But UAA needs to take the first step towards a more equitable future. UAA needs to abolish its criminal disclosure requirement.