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Published May 17, 2011

New York Times

Convicted of robbing a video store in California in 1997, Ayanna Spikes decided to change the trajectory of her life. In 14 years, she has had no further brushes with the law.

The eight months she spent in prison, she said, were the "best thing that ever happened to me," persuading her to pursue training in medical administration and complete coursework for a degree in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. At 38, she is a far different person from the confused young woman who strayed into crime, she says.

But employers, initially impressed by her credentials, grow leery when they learn her history. She has been turned down for more than a dozen jobs since finishing college in 2010.

Almost 65 million Americans have criminal records, either for an arrest or a conviction, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, whose policy co-director, Maurice Emsellem, says that the figure is probably an underestimate.

Some have left their criminal pasts far behind. Others were convicted of minor offenses, or of crimes that appear to have little relevance to the jobs they are seeking.

Employers once had to physically search court records to uncover the background of people they were considering hiring. But the Internet and the proliferation of screening companies that perform background checks have made digging into a job applicant's history both easy and inexpensive for prospective employers.

Many companies, advocates say, screen out anyone who has a hint of criminal activity in his or her background, in violation of government guidelines that demand that employers take into account the severity of an offense, the length of time that has passed and its relevance to the job in question. In some cases, they note, people have been turned away because of arrests that never resulted in convictions.

"I understand the employers' response that, 'We don't want murderers working for us,'" said Adam T. Klein, an employment lawyer. "What if you just have minor events, like arrests for drug use in college, speeding tickets, DWIs?"

Employers argue that they use common sense in evaluating a candidate's background and take steps to be fair.

Lawyer Rod Fliegel said that employers are caught in a bind; they can also be sued if they fail to screen an employee who later harms someone. There is no federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with criminal records. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set guidelines on how employers can use such records.

Because African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities have higher rates of criminal convictions, a blanket policy that screens out anyone with a criminal history will discriminate against these groups, the commission says, and is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Spikes, who is still searching for a job, said she hopes to find an employer who could overlook her background.

"What's most important to me is that the story has somewhat of a happy ending."

Did you know?

In a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management, almost 90 percent of the companies surveyed, most of them large employers, said they conducted criminal background checks on some or all job candidates.