Photo by The TRiiBE
The People is our section for opinions on all things concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, LeadersUp CEO Jeffery Wallace responds to the arrests of Black teenagers in downtown Chicago last month.

As a society, we’ve been socialized that it’s acceptable to punish people with criminal records by denying them certain inalienable rights after they’ve paid their debt. If you’re a felon, by law, that punishment includes disenfranchisement, but informally it also includes being viewed as a unqualified job candidate. A person with a criminal record is half as likely to receive a call-back from an employer. Their potential lifetime earnings, educational and career trajectories are compromised. And sadly, an arrest without a charge or conviction has the power to inflict the same degree of harm.

That’s why I was deeply disturbed by the Chicago Police Department’s arresting a group of 30 or so Black teenagers converging downtown last month during spring break. If the public sector can follow young people’s activity on social media in order to prepare to arrest them, they can do that same type of mapping and data analysis to help them be successful. I applaud CPD for having that capacity, but how do we use that level of insight to help, not cause more harm?

All it takes is an arrest to change the course of their lives. Hundreds of young people, mostly Chicago Public Schools students, were arrested that day. Police contributed to another of many troubling statistics relative to Black young adults: in a national survey, more than 30 percent of young Americans reported that they had been arrested at least once before age 23.

No matter if the charges were dropped, or if the person was proven innocent, studies show that a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a job callback or offer by as much as 50 percent.

Racial disparities in arrest rates are high among young people of color in the justice system, one that is systemically setting up Black youth for failure before they even get their lives started. We must find alternatives to rounding up and arresting youth by putting measures in place that ensure that the 2.1 million youth under age 18 who are arrested in a single year are allowed to transition into adulthood without impediments. They should be equipped with the skills they need to be self-sufficient, productive citizens.

Policies that prohibit the hiring of workers with criminal records reduces the U.S. gross domestic product by $78 billion to $87 billion annually, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Communities spending millions of tax dollars on incarceration are shortchanging themselves if they allow individuals to emerge from institutions with a deeply diminished earning power, burdened by the albatross of a criminal record. These circumstances can create conditions that lead to recidivism, perpetuating the cycle of misery and missed opportunity.

It is in a community’s best interests to make sure a young person is connected to a job, even if it’s a half day’s work, to give them the skills to help them succeed and become a taxpayer. It can cost up to $148,000 yearly to incarcerate a juvenile, up to 12 times more expensive than the cost of a year at a private high school. One of those investments will yield a much higher return than the other.

Meanwhile, the business community must recognize that it needs to make the biggest bet on the next generation. Providing training in soft and hard skills will develop a workforce that is ready to fill the talent gaps that employers fret over.

LeadersUp CEO Jeffery Wallace [right] helping a young Black man with his tie.

Filling the talent gaps that threaten to slow business growth will require the full participation of justice-involved adults in the labor market. We’re in luck because these young men and women want to work, and they want to learn. LeadersUp, the nonprofit talent accelerator I head up, polled 5,000 young Chicagoans last year, and the majority said they’re ready and willing to invest the time it takes to earn an industry credential tied to jobs that are available right now. And there’s plenty out there.

On May 15 at Malcolm X College from 7 AM to 3 PM, LeadersUp is hosting its Future at Work Summit, connecting job-ready young adults with employers, many of whom are prepared to offer positions on the spot. And we’re also going to talk about building bridges to connect justice-involved Chicagoans to economic opportunity and how we can work together to change the narrative about them and the outcomes.

Instead of trying to catch our young people doing something wrong, let’s work to give them the tools to add value to the city, our employer talent base, and more importantly to their own lives.

It’s in everyone’s interest that our society shifts from punishing our young people to empowering them, our communities and economies by rethinking the costs of our treatment of justice-involved adults and young people.

LeadersUp is a nonprofit talent development accelerator in Chicago that’s committed to disrupting inefficiencies within our workforce system.