For Chicagoans of Color, Fingerprinting Requirements Amount to Legalized Discrimination
By Rev. Walter P. Turner
Over the past month, some aldermen have been considering whether or not people looking to earn extra income with Uber should have to go through a formal licensing process that includes a fingerprint-based background check. In doing so, they’ve demonstrated how they’ve lost sight of larger issues at stake in Chicago—and they risk further alienating communities of color.
After a year when it’s become all too clear how policing has disproportionately impacted the lives of black men and women everywhere, our city leaders should be taking a hard look before putting forth any requirements that allow effects of racial profiling to linger.
Fingerprint background checks have many problems. For one, they capture the innocent along with the guilty. The process compares an individual’s fingerprints alongside an out-of-date FBI database, which frequently has errors. Often it includes arrests that may never have resulted in criminal charges, much less convictions. Under this kind of flawed system, anyone who has ever been arrested could have the opportunity to work taken away from them, regardless of whether they were convicted or did anything wrong.
An arrest is not supposed to automatically translate to a lifetime sentence. But for the many Chicagoans who have encountered any trouble with the law, that’s just what happens. And we’re not talking about a handful of people. According to several studies, nearly one in three American adults have been arrested by the age of 23, most for nonviolent drug offenses like drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and loitering.
And who do you think this impacts most? People of color. Why? They are much more likely to be arrested, and confront harsher charges and tougher sentences than those who are white.
Across the country, African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be arrested and four times more likely to be jailed than whites, even though there is no correlation between race and criminal behavior.
This is true especially in Chicago, where blacks represent 37% of the population under 18, but account for more than 79% of juvenile arrests in recent years. And when you include the number of people who are currently incarcerated, nearly 80% of working-age African American men in the Chicago area have criminal records.
What results is a city in which black men and women are locked out of work opportunities for the rest of their lives—primarily because of the color of their skin. In Illinois more than 100 jobs are entirely off limits to anyone who has been convicted of a felony. Research has shown that well over a year after serving their time, people are unable to find ways to make a living. Their restitution costs and legal fees then fall on their families at rates that can easily max out a low-income household’s annual income. Recidivism in these circumstances seems inevitable.
Federal officials have realized how devastating the cycle of incarceration and recidivism has been on our communities. That’s why Attorney General Loretta Lynch launched an investigation into how local policing practices may need to change. Similarly, we need Chicago aldermen to recognize the long-term consequences of targeting communities of color and stop entertaining requirements that allow systematic discrimination within the law to persist.
The first step is to realize that drivers looking to work with Uber and Lyft shouldn’t fail a background check and lose out on work opportunities simply because they’ve had a minor interaction with the justice system at some point in their lives. These are opportunities tailor-made for anyone looking to get back on their feet after falling on hard times—it’s flexible and easy to get started. There is no reason why people with low-level, nonviolent offenses who are simply looking for a way to put food on the table should be denied these opportunities after they have served their time and paid their debt to society.
We know for a fact that people who are out of work are more likely to commit new crimes and less able to provide for their children or aging relatives. That’s why a growing number of leaders from all sides of the political spectrum have supported removing work barriers for ex-convicts.
As a pastor, I see everyday how this impacts families in our communities. It’s the difference between children growing up with parents who can support their families with honest work and broken homes under the weight of a sentence for a lifetime.
Forcing people to go through a fingerprint-based background check in order to earn a living ensures that they are defined by the worst moment of their lives for the rest of their lives. When there are other fair and accurate ways to evaluate an individual’s qualifications, why push for one that inhibits people from changing their lives for the better after an unfair encounter with the law?
While we all want safe communities, Chicago aldermen must draw a line between policies that keep us safe and policies that discriminate.
Pastor Walter P. Turner III leads New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church and serves as President of the Baptist Ministers Conference.