Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Question of Character: Convictions for Minor Crimes Can Derail Students' Job Prospects in a Hyper Competitive Employment Environment

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Question of Character: Convictions for Minor Crimes Can Derail Students' Job Prospects in a Hyper Competitive Employment Environment

Article excerpt


When intern placement veteran Jacqueline Perkins begins counseling students at Florida A&M University about their prospects for getting well-paying, security-related jobs with the federal government, she confronts the 800-pound gorilla in the room--the question of whether a student has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

As minor as a misdemeanor conviction or guilty plea appears at first (usually a small fine and no jail time), she says, it can live in government records forever, undermine the job prospects of otherwise stellar candidates and cause major damage to their long-term career aspirations.

"We are graduating a lot of students with a false sense of security," says Perkins, internship director in FAMU's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice for more than a decade. Perkins, whose school places the most HBCU students in the Centralized Student Career Experience Program--a cooperative education program that prepares undergraduate students for Deputy U.S. Marshal positions, says too little is done to educate minority students about misdemeanors.

"We're living in a time now when everything is competitive," she says. "If an agency has to make a decision on a student who has some question on their background or one with a stellar background ... why would they hire the one with questions? Character and integrity (are) most important."

Convictions or pleading guilty to misdemeanors--a catch-all classification of usually minor crimes ranging from disorderly conduct; driving with open containers of alcoholic beverages; possession of small amounts of marijuana; making fake IDs; littering; vandalism; writing worthless checks; public drunkenness; stealing food or lesser needs or wants; unauthorized duplication of copyrighted material; simple assault (such as getting into a fight); and similar offenses--can eliminate job prospects from pursuing a wide range of opportunities after graduation.

The federal government may not hire people with misdemeanor records for myriad permanent jobs that are security related in the FBI, Secret Service, IRS and U.S. Marshals Service. In many states a misdemeanor record can bar a person from representing a client in court or working as a doctor or dentist, depending on the nature of the offense. The same is true for many school districts when a job involves dealing with children or money on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, private employers of all stripes ask job applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime, not always initially asking for an explanation. Nearly all employers do background checks on applicants, even on job seekers looking for internships.

"It is not fair," says former federal prosecutor David P. Baugh, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Richmond, Va., referring to how misdemeanor offenders are treated. "The child committing that offense will be different in five or 10 years. I'm not the man I was when I was 18."

It's not just the employment line that narrows when a misdemeanor conviction becomes part of a student or graduate's history. Applying to college and getting campus housing can become complicated as a consequence of having committed a misdemeanor.

At Delaware State University, for example, it is standard procedure to ask all applicants for admission whether they have been convicted of a crime. If the applicant answers yes, the school requires detailed explanations of the offense. The application and explanation are referred to the school's admissions conduct review board for closer scrutiny.

"(The review board) will take it on a case-by-case basis," says Delaware State spokesman Carlos Holmes. "(The review panel) could admit with stipulations or decide it (the conviction) is frivolous and dismiss it." He adds that more stringent rules apply in cases where existing students at the school are convicted of committing a misdemeanor or worse offenses. …

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