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Finding a Job with a Criminal Record

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Finding employment with a criminal conviction or arrest record hanging over your head may at first appear to be a daunting task, but it is entirely possible. The journey to find a job can be made much easier by studying your legal rights, your local laws, and keeping a few general tips in mind when on your search.

First, know the current status of your record. An arrest or conviction will not always show up on a background check. For example, if the offense occurred while you were a minor, it is likely that record was sealed when you turned 18 to prevent future difficulties, such as trying to secure a job or gain admission to university. 

Further, it is not rare for nonviolent drug offenders to be granted the opportunity for either a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) or Deferred Sentencing Agreement (DSA); these terms vary from state to state. DPAs and DSAs allow the offender the chance to walk away without a charge so long as he or she completes certain requirements set by the court, such as going to rehab or performing community service. This is normally for first time drug offenders without a prior criminal record. With this option, employers will not see the drug charge on a background check.

Moreover, if you were over 18 and did not receive an DPA, DSA, or equivalent, you could still have your record expunged depending on the nature of the charge, how much time has passed, and what you’ve accomplished since that incident. 

You can find out the status of your record a few different ways. Many states have online databases available to the public to search for arrest records; this is the easiest way for employers to find a prior offense. You can use this database (and a quick Google search of your name) to see what information is available about your arrest online before potential employers do. Another more thorough (though more costly) path is to hire an investigator to look into your background and dig up whatever he or she can find. Both of these options give you notice of what personal information is readily available to others and time to prepare to respond to any questions regarding your background if you know what’s readily available to others.

Once you’re aware of your existing record, you may want to meet with an attorney to discuss the possibility of having that record expunged. Once a record has been expunged, you no longer need to indicate its existence on job applications asking if you have a record and it will not appear in background checks performed by employers. It’s important to note that even though your conviction record can be expunged, that doesn’t necessarily expunge an arrest record.

Even if your arrest record or conviction record is visible to employers, they may not treat you differently solely for having a record. Instead, they may discriminate based on the type of conviction itself. For example, someone with a conviction for robbery may justly be denied from working at a bank, or someone who is a sex offender may be denied from working at a school or community center. If an employer is going to deny you a job based on your record, their decision must be properly justified. Factors that employers may take into account when looking at a conviction record include the nature of the offense, the nature of the job that you’re applying for, and how much time has passed since the offense occurred. 

Most importantly, honesty is crucial on your applications and to potential employers. Lying during the application process could mean bad news down the line, including losing your job all together. If your record is visible to employers, practice what you will say when asked about it. Do not try to justify your offense or claim it was unfair (even if it was). Instead, focus on how you have grown and changed as a person since then. Bring up personal and professional accomplishments that show your reliability, responsibility, and readiness to work and learn.

Finding a job with a record may take some time and extra effort but it will definitely pay off. Make sure to network with others in your field and don’t be afraid to start at a lower, or entry-level position. From there, you can show off your capability and work towards advancement. 

About the Author

Ashley grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma before moving to Washington, DC for undergrad at George Washington University, where she will soon complete double majors in Criminal Justice and Psychology, with a minor in Law & Society. She has competed in mock trial competitions at both the high school and collegiate levels in hopes of preparing her for a career in criminal law. In her free time, Ashley has tutored inmates in GED-prep at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women through the Petey Greene Program. She is currently serving as the Vice President of the GW chapter of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform. Ashley also serves as a University Justice on GWU’s Conduct Board in the Student Rights & Responsibilities office where she determines responsibility and sanctions for a wide variety of conduct and academic integrity violations.

Ashley Wilson began interning for WGW in January 2016 before becoming a paralegal in June 2016. She assists in legal research for college student defense cases and writes for a blog about the college disciplinary process. She also aids attorney Shan Wu with his college course at GWU: Campus Justice. She has been accepted to multiple law schools and is currently weighing her options for 1L this fall.