When people have a criminal record, it can be hard - too hard - for them to ever overcome the stigma, particularly when job-hunting. This fact can lock people into a pattern of failure and recidivism. Some people wind up punished for life for committing even minor crimes. Reformers have had increasing success persuading policymakers to change this pattern.
That is why reaction has been fierce - and bipartisan - to the news that the Trump administration is seeking to add language to federal hiring forms requiring applicants to disclose not only past convictions but also whether they have ever participated in pretrial diversion programs meant to keep them free of a criminal record.
A pending Office of Personnel Management proposal would change the forms that applicants who have been given preliminary federal job offers must complete. Instead of asking only about convictions, the new forms would query whether applicants have “been subject to judge or court specified conditions requiring satisfactory completion before a criminal charge has been or will be dismissed.”
Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, last week sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management expressing alarm that the new forms would “no doubt exclude deserving applicants from valued federal employment opportunities.” President Donald Trump has evinced a surprisingly progressive attitude on criminal-justice reform, making the language change all the more confounding.
One essential rationale for pretrial diversion is to avoid labeling people as criminals, often because they need treatment for addiction or mental-health problems rather than incarceration. The idea is to give such people a fair shot at landing jobs and other opportunities after they get clean, get help or offer suitable restitution for their offenses.
Unsurprisingly, pretrial diversion - which can involve moving cases to specialized drug courts or veterans courts, or striking restitution deals with prosecutors - has been a centerpiece of criminal-justice reforms in states across the country seeking to curb irrational overpunishment. Participants in pretrial diversion are not convicted of any crime. They should not have to carry a stain into future phases of their lives.
The federal government is a massive employer, with 3 million workers and many more contractors. But the Trump administration’s change could end up hurting even more people by providing a perverse model for private companies.
The Trump administration must find a way to conduct reasonable background checks and still respect the spirit of diversion program policies across the country.