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Virginia Law Review

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More than sixty-five million people in the United States—more than one in four adults—have had some involvement with the criminal justice system that will appear on a criminal history report. A rapidly expanding, for-profit industry has developed to collect these records and compile them into electronic databases, offering employers an inexpensive and readily accessible means of screening prospective employees. Nine out of ten employers now inquire into the criminal history of job candidates, systematically denying individuals with a criminal record any opportunity to gain work experience or build their job qualifications. This is so despite the fact that many individuals with criminal records have never been convicted of a crime, as one-third of felony arrests never result in conviction. And criminal records databases routinely contain significant errors, including false positive identifications and sealed or expunged information.

The negative impact of employers’ reliance on criminal records databases falls most heavily on Black and Latino populations, as studies show that the stigma of having a criminal record is significantly more damaging for racial minorities than for Whites. This criminal record “penalty” limits profoundly the chance of achieving gainful employment, creating new and vexing problems for regulators, employers, and minorities with criminal records. Our existing regulatory apparatus, which is grounded in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, is ill-equipped to resolve this emerging dilemma because it fails to address systematic information failures and the problem of stigma.

This Article, therefore, proposes a new framework drawn from core aspects of anti-discrimination laws that govern health law, notably the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. These laws were designed to regulate the flow of information that may form the basis of an adverse employment decision, seeking to prevent discrimination preemptively. More fundamentally, they conceptualize discrimination through the lens of social stigma, which is critical to understanding and prophylactically curbing the particular discrimination that results from dual criminal record and minority status. This health law framework attends to the interests of minorities with criminal records, allows for more robust enforcement of existing laws, and enables employers to make appropriate and equitable hiring decisions, without engaging in invidious discrimination or contributing to the establishment of a new, and potentially enduring, underclass.