STEPHEN FEE: Every afternoon, at his dining room table, 35 year old Ronald Lewis does his homework.
By day, he's a student — learning to fix heating and air conditioning systems, and he looks after his three kids. He also works the nightshift, running high-pressure boilers at a chemical plant here in his hometown Philadelphia.
RONALD LEWIS: I'm a father. I'm a hard worker. I'm very ambitious.
STEPHEN FEE: He's also got a criminal record.
A decade ago, Lewis had two major run-ins with the law that he says have interfered with his job prospects ever since.
In August 2004, he was picked up during a drug arrest alongside his brother. Lewis was carrying a 9 millimeter handgun. Days later he was nabbed for stealing a pocketbook from a department store.
So what was that like — and what happened at that stage after they arrested you?
RONALD LEWIS: It was life changing. But it wasn't a good feeling. It wasn't a good feeling because you felt like you disappointed your family and you disappointed your mother, which is the most important person in my life.
STEPHEN FEE: On the suggestion of his lawyer, Lewis took a deal. For both cases, he pled guilty to a total of three misdemeanors and was sentenced to five years probation. No jail time.
At that time, were you worried at all about how this might impact your future?
RONALD LEWIS: No. Because the lawyer had told me, ‘It's only a misdemeanor. It's never gonna hurt you. Don't even worry about it.' So no. I really didn't think that much into it at that point.
STEPHEN FEE: A short time later, Lewis began looking for new work. He was overjoyed when he got a tentative job offer from a building company.
RONALD LEWIS: I worked there for about a month, was honest with them. Told them, you know, what was on my record. They still hired me. We're workin'. So I work there about a month. They called me in the office and said, ‘Your record came back. We gotta let you go.'
STEPHEN FEE: And that was it? Even though you had disclosed everything? You were never dishonest in the hiring process?
RONALD LEWIS: Never dishonest. Never. They looked so scared of me — it was a shame.
STEPHEN FEE: What do you mean?
RONALD LEWIS: When they — we gotta get you out of here. We've gotta get you off the premises.
STEPHEN FEE: Lewis says that scenario played out over and over again — later on, he had two offers that were then revoked. He had promising phonecalls with another company that went nowhere. He says the only explanation he received: the existence of crimes in his past. Four of those companies declined to discuss Lewis' case with us.
STEPHEN FEE: There are people who are going to watch this, and they're going to say, ‘You know what? You weren't a kid. You were 25. You were an adult. You knew what you were doing. And that this is a consequence — this is a consequence of your actions.'
RONALD LEWIS: If you show me one person that hasn't made a mistake, then I won't apply nowhere else.
STEPHEN FEE: Nine in ten companies in the US conduct background checks, and with rap sheets widely available online, advocates say people with criminal backgrounds — sometimes just an arrest record, no conviction — are being blocked from employment. They say it's driving a growing number of people into poverty. And that Ronald Lewis' case is hardly unique.
SHARON DIETRICH, COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICES OF PHILADELPHIA: It's very common. We see clients come in with variations of his story on a daily basis.
STEPHEN FEE: Sharon Dietrich is now Ronald Lewis' lawyer — she didn't represent him in the original criminal cases. She's also the litigation director at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She's been there for nearly thirty years.
SHARON DIETRICH, COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICES OF PHILADELPHIA: We serve the low-income community of Philadelphia, basically unemployed and low-wage workers in Philadelphia. And it's the single most common reason people come to us for help is because they have a criminal record that has been keeping them from getting a job.
STEPHEN FEE: Last year, the Wall Street Journal using data from the University of South Carolina reported that Americans with a criminal conviction by age 23 have higher unemployment rates, make less money, and are twice as likely to end up in poverty as their peers.
REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: The reality is that with the rise of technology and really with the proliferation of background checks in this nation in really every walk of life from employment to housing, a criminal record now carries often lifelong barriers to basic building blocks of economic security.
STEPHEN FEE: Rebecca Vallas is a lawyer and poverty expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. She and Sharon Dietrich, Ronald Lewis' lawyer, published a report last year linking poverty and criminal backgrounds, especially among black men.
REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: The fact is that between 70 million and 100 million Americans, and that's nearly one in three of us, has some type of criminal record. And so it's really an incredibly pervasive problem that impacts whole segments of our community. But it — this issue also really disproportionately impacts communities of color.
STEPHEN FEE: Employers say they aren't just shutting out everyone with a criminal past — they're being careful and complying with guidelines from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission meant to give people second chances.
That's according to Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 350 thousand small businesses.
A cynical part of me says, ‘Hey, if I sat down and, boy, it looks like someone's got a criminal record and then I've got another candidate who doesn't, I'm gonna go with the guy who doesn't have the criminal record,' right?
BETH MILITO, NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES: Maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on the nature of the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidance in April of 2012. And it reiterates that where at all possible it's good for a business to consider three factors– the nature of the crime, the time that's elapsed since the crime and the nature of the job. And when at all possible to make an individualized assessment. And I think many employers will do that.
STEPHEN FEE: Dozens of cities — including Philadelphia — along with thirteen states have passed so-called ban the box measures that basically ban that little check box on job applications asking about your criminal history.
But Vallas and Dietrich's report for the Center for American Progress wants to go a step further — and seal low-level, nonviolent criminal offenses that took place more than ten years ago.
According to Rebecca Vallas, the data show that after a decade, nonviolent offenders are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else — so their records shouldn't be part of the hiring process at all.
REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: We really have policies in place that treat a person as a criminal long– after they really pose any significant risk of ever re-offending. And it really doesn't make much sense to be shutting someone out of opportunities to access — a job for instance — because of misconceptions about who that person might be and the risk that they might pose to public safety.
STEPHEN FEE: But Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses says employers face major risks, and even potential negligent hiring lawsuits, if a past offender commits a crime on the job. And for small business owners especially, their reputations could be on the line.
BETH MILITO, NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES: Hiring decisions are challenging. And they need this information. They can't turn a blind eye. Too much is at risk.They can't turn a blind eye to criminal history. It'd be foolish to. You know, there's people, property at stake.
STEPHEN FEE: Someone might be watching this and they say, ‘You know what? I wouldn't trust you at my business.' How do you defend yourself to that charge?”
RONALD LEWIS: What I say to them is it was 2004, and I'm pretty sure if you made a mistake in 2004, you don't know what your mistake was. But mine is documented. So you know what my mistake is. And look at the positive things I've done since 2004. So if you're gonna hang your hat on just 2004, then you probably aren't the person I wanna work for anyway.
STEPHEN FEE: Do you think an employer doesn't have the right to know what happened in your past?
RONALD LEWIS: Employers should know — should know who they're hiring. It's fair. You– you should know. But you should also remember that these are lives we're — these are people's lives we're talking about. It's like if almost double jeopardy. Just look at it like this.
I serve my — I did my probation. No violations. Model citizen. I go to school and try to better myself, and I'm — it's like every time I apply for a job, I feel like I'm committing a crime all over again.
STEPHEN FEE: Lewis has submitted two pardon applications to the state to clear his record — and while both have been rejected, he plans on re-submitting in the near future.