In Pennsylvania, a 70-year-old law is exacerbating barriers to employment for people with criminal histories. The Private Detective Act imposes a strict lifetime ban on working in the security industry—including as unarmed guards found in many stores and businesses—for anyone with most criminal convictions, well after they have served their sentence.
On June 27th, two Philadelphia workers who lost jobs as unarmed security guards due to convictions from more than 15 years ago, sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is responsible for enforcing the Act in Philadelphia. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the Public Interest Law Center represent the workers.
The Private Detective Act violates the PA Constitution.
The plaintiffs argue that the Private Detective Act, which governs employment in a wide range of jobs in the security field, is unconstitutional. They are seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the law. Read the complaint here.
The Act imposes a strict, lifetime ban on employment for applicants who have ever been convicted of any felony and a long list of misdemeanors—no matter how much time has passed and with no provision for employers to consider individual circumstances. This categorical ban, the workers assert, violates their right to pursue an occupation under the Pennsylvania State Constitution.
“An antiquated and irrational law is shutting qualified workers out of a growing field of employment for the rest of their lives based on unrelated criminal records,” said Senior Attorney Ben Geffen, who, along with Staff Attorney Claudia De Palma, is representing the workers on behalf of the Public Interest Law Center.
One in three adults in the United States has some kind of criminal history. These records can serve as a steep barrier to employment: about 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. Research makes clear that this bias is unwarranted. The risk of recidivism for individuals with criminal history over seven years old falls below the risk of arrest for the people without criminal records. Employment exclusions fall hardest on Black and Latino workers, who face the greatest impacts of over policing, mass incarceration, and employment discrimination.
Security positions often do not require a college degree and the growing industry can offer better wages and benefits than other entry-level work for high school graduates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for a security guard is $31,470, or about $15 per hour—double Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
“Security jobs are highly sought after by low-wage workers, and we have seen hundreds of clients over the years be denied work in this industry due to conviction records that are wholly unrelated to their ability to work in the field,” said Jamie Gullen, Managing Attorney of the Employment Unit at Community Legal Services, who along with Litigation Director Sharon Dietrich and Senior Attorney Katie Svoboda-Kindle, represent the workers on behalf of Community Legal Services.
The Private Detective Act, passed in 1953, includes a long list of misdemeanors that bar workers from employment in the security and protection industry for life. These include simple drug possession, pickpocketing, and a catchall category of “any offense involving moral turpitude.” In reaction to the Act’s broad prohibitions, most security employers do not hire workers with any kind of conviction history at all.
The Act is enforced against employers of security guards, imposing fines of up to $5,000 and/or prison terms of up to a year for any employer that hires workers with criminal histories covered by the Act. The lawsuit seeks an order from the court declaring the Private Detective Act’s criminal record ban unconstitutional and enjoining the Commonwealth and the District Attorney’s Office from upholding and enforcing the Act’s employment restrictions.