ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One in four American adults has a criminal record that will show up on a routine background check. That's a staggering number. And those black marks can slam the door to employment in fast-growing sectors of the economy, even if the convictions are for minor offenses and decades-old. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on a new lawsuit in Pennsylvania that's trying to change that.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Outside an apartment building on Broad Street along the county line in Philadelphia, birds outnumber the rush-hour traffic.
TYRONE PEAKE: It's nice and quiet compared to other neighborhoods which I lived in.
JOHNSON: That sense of peace matters more now that Tyrone Peake is 52 years old. In 1981, when he was just 18, Peake was arrested with a friend for trying to steal a car to take a girl home after a long weekend.
PEAKE: No. We never got the car. We broke the ignition column and then the cops came.
JOHNSON: He never went to prison. Instead, he got probation. But that single charge years ago still haunts him, sometimes even after he's gotten work.
PEAKE: I've been fired from three job because having a criminal record, and my record is, like, 32 years old and I haven't been in trouble since then.
JOHNSON: A lot's happened since the 1980s. Peake went back to school, and he's been working part-time as a counselor for men addicted to drugs and alcohol. But a Pennsylvania law prevents him from being hired full time to work in a nursing home or long-term care facility because of that single criminal conviction.
TAD LEVAN: It is an absolute bar that lasts for life and covers any position in any covered facility.
JOHNSON: Tad Levan is a Philadelphia lawyer. He's working with Peake and others to overturn the Pennsylvania law, known as the Older Adults Protective Services Act.
LEVAN: There is no provision in the law for either an affected individual or for an employer who wants to hire an affected individual to prove that this person is capable and fit for the job.
JOHNSON: Levan acknowledges elder abuse is a real problem in nursing homes, and the community needs to protect against that. But he says the Pennsylvania law is arbitrary and overbroad. And people like Tyrone Peake are not the problem. Lawyers on the case say the law bars employment for as many as 200,000 people in Pennsylvania. Janet Ginzberg works at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, one of the groups helping with the new lawsuit.
JANET GINZBERG: Most of our clients are not people coming just out of prison or just off of a criminal record. Our clients come to us - often they are five, 10, 20 years away from their conviction. And they're still having trouble finding a job.
JOHNSON: Ginzberg enlisted experts who say the value of criminal records in predicting future crime almost vanishes four to seven years after a single conviction. But those old convictions can show up on background checks for 20 or 30 years. The Pennsylvania attorney general had no comment for this story. I asked the lawyers representing Tyrone Peake whether they felt comfortable with their loved ones in nursing homes being cared for by people with criminal records. Why not let business owners decide, responds Tad Levan?
LEVAN: They'll be liable for the conduct of their employees within the scope of their employment, so they don't have incentives to go out on a limb.
JOHNSON: But he says under current law, Pennsylvania employers face financial penalties if they use that discretion. There's something else about this lawsuit - it's the second time these same lawyers have challenged the Older Adults Protective Services Act. About 14 years ago, the plaintiffs won, and the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania declared the law unconstitutional. Then everyone waited for the legislature to fix it, but that never happened, leaving people like Tyrone Peake in limbo. Back in the apartment building, Peake locks his door and gets ready to leave for his part-time job. He's graduating in a couple of weeks, but he doesn't have a big party planned.
PEAKE: No. I have to work right after that (laughter). I can't afford to take off.
JOHNSON: If he wins his lawsuit, Peake says, maybe he'll be eligible for full-time work with benefits and paid vacations. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
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