Last month, Uber announced that it would begin to accept drivers with criminal records.
Specifically, as the Hartford Courant reports:
“Uber’s change in policy, which goes into effect early next year, will allow people with convictions for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses such as passing a bad check, resisting arrest, petty theft, prostitution, harassment and causing minor property damage to drive for the company.”
“Previously, applicants with such records were automatically rejected if the offense occurred within the past seven years. Uber said it will continue to reject applicants who have felony convictions within the past seven years, as well as applicants with convictions for misdemeanor offenses that involve violence, sex crimes and serious motor vehicle violations.”
It is unlikely that Uber — and the company’s insurers — would make such a move had it not already concluded that persons guilty of these offenses were unlikely to be a danger to the company’s passengers.
But perhaps more importantly, Uber is also willing to gamble on the fact that many of the company’s customers won’t care that their drivers possibly have a criminal history.
And, Uber is probably right.
After all, serious criminal convictions for small-time and non-violent violations have become so commonplace in the United States that many Americans are now well aware that having a criminal conviction in one’s past is not at all necessarily an indication that one is a violent criminal, or that one has even engaged in a “crime” with an actual victim.
According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberies Union, for example, “Police in the US arrest more people for cannabis use than all violent crimes combined.”
The Independent reports:
“Police make 1.25m arrests each year for drug possession, around half of which are for using marijuana. The total is more than than double that for violent crime arrests.”
While not all of these arrests lead to criminal convictions, of course, but many do, and even a misdemeanor conviction — or even an arrest — can end up costing a defendant his or her job. And, there are now as many Americans with arrest records as there are Americans with college diplomas.
The War on Drugs brought longer prison terms and stiffer fines than had been the case in earlier decades. But drugs aren’t the activity that have been leading to increasingly outsized punishments. In the United States today, we continue to witness what can perhaps be called “punishment inflation” in which fines and jail time for certain crimes have been increased above what punishments those same crimes brought in the past.
In Connecticut, where Uber is initiating its new plan for drivers, we find this phenomenon at work. In a 2015 report form the state legislature’s Office of Legislative Research, we find numerous examples:
The offense of “misusing or counterfeiting a stamp or label of a mechanic or manufacturer” once potentially brough a penalty of up to six months in prison or a $100 fine (or both). After 1995, however, the offense now can bring up to five years in prison, and up to a $250,000 fine. Or both.
The act of “other fraudulent activities related to trademarks and other marks” is now subject to similarly draconian punishments as well.
Acting as a pawnbroker without a license once brought up to six months in prison and a fine up to $500 (or both.) That was for the third offense, and the first offense brought a measly $50 fine. Since 1997, though, the same offense has become a Class D felony which means it brings up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both.
Violating laws related to “work hours of minors, elderly, or persons with disabilities in manufacturing or mechanical establishments” once brought a relatively small punishment of a $25 fine for a first offense and 30 days in prison and/or a $100 dollar fine for subsequent offenses. Since 2006, violators have been subject to up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine, or both — even for the first offense.
Once upon a time, parents or guardians who “permitt[ed] minors to work in violation of specified labor laws” were subject to a $50 fine. Since 2006, the same violation has brought up to 5 years in prison and/or up to a $5,000 fine.
Up until 2013, the crime of “ineligible person soliciting or using a straw man to obtain a firearm” was a Class A or Class B misedemeanor, which meant no more than a year in prison or a $5,000 fine (or both). Since then, the violation brings a mandatory one year in prison and a $3,000 fine.
The list goes on and on with many violations such as “unauthorized practice of law” and “replacement air bag violations” increasing from misdemeanors to felonies.
Nor are legislators in Connecticut alone in their mania for previously small-time legal infractions into felonies.
The Heritage Foundation has noted that federal crimes with stiff penalties have been growing for years, and the Illinois Policy Institute notes that the state has spent enormous sums jailing people under the Class 4 Felony statutes which cover small-time offenses.
As Justin Murray has has explained at mises.org, the United States is fairly unique in the severity of its punishments. Many crimes that bring long jail sentences in the United States are delth with through fines and rehabilitation programs in many other parts of the world.
Nor is this a small affair, especially since a there may be a positive correlation between higher incarneration rates and violent crime. When people are unable to find work of any kind thanks to prior arrests or convictions, they have little to lose by falling back into criminal behavior.
Nevertheless, we should not be surprised that America’s widespread fondness for doling out criminal convictions and jail sentences has intersected with the private-sector’s desire for more readily-available labor. There are now so many “criminals” in the United States, that employers have begun to question just how meaningful that designation really is.
Uber should be applauded for taking the first step in offering work to some of the small-time violators who, in modern America, are increasingly being treated as hardened criminals. Certainly, the cost of recidivism and increased incarceration for millions of Americans doesn’t come cheap to the taxpayers.
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