Leiden Law Blog

Uber and criminal background checks: Balancing safety and second chances

Uber and criminal background checks: Balancing safety and second chances

"Uber is dedicated to keeping people safe on the road," but how it does this has not been short of scrutiny. In 2015, prosecutors from San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, United States filed a lawsuit against globally-operating ride-sharing giant Uber over concerns regarding the integrity of Uber's criminal background checks and claims of "safety you can trust." After reporting that Uber failed to detect 25 drivers with criminal records, some of whom held prior convictions for kidnapping and murder, these mishaps are an unfortunate blow to Uber's reputability. But, in light of these circumstances, it brings forth questions as to the modern dependency and effectiveness of criminal background checks as a whole.

In more recent events, in February 2016 an Uber driver carried out a mass shooting, killing six people in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Yet this same driver had no prior criminal record whatsoever. Before the shooting, the driver had completed over 100 trips for Uber before earning an average customer rating of 4.73 out of 5. Although many would like to believe that Uber could have done something to prevent this, in actuality there is not much else that they could have done. In our modern society, we are obsessed with risk-prediction tools, like criminal background checks. But, whether their presence is effective or not in truly preventing crime seems to be subordinate to their blind and broad application alone.

Although Uber has been put in the spotlight, they have also been a beacon for reform in how we conduct criminal background checks and derive value from them. Criminal background checks are, in fact, at odds with the goal of reintegrating ex-offenders back into society. Thus, in a bold move, Uber has become one of the first employers to actually differentiate between true criminals, versus those labeled as "criminals" for their disagreeable moral sensibilities. In this, ex-offenders for certain crimes are offered a second chance to regain economic stability through additional work opportunities.

Safety and reform

Currently Uber uses a nationally accredited screening process carried out by Checkr. Potential drivers must provide detailed information including their full name, birth date, social security number, copy of driver's licence, vehicle registration, insurance and proof of vehicle inspection. This information is then run through a national and local database for the last 7 years including: county courthouse records for every county of residence, federal courthouse records, the multi-state criminal database, vehicle records, social security trace, and national sex offender registry. Yet some critics say 7 years is too short  as a period for examination, but Uber believes it "strikes the right balance" between protecting the public and offering ex-offenders a chance at rehabilitation and reintegration.

Not all ex-offenders are the same and some crimes are obviously worse than others. But, if people are given a second chance to reform themselves and they take that opportunity seriously in abstaining from criminal behaviour, they should not continue to be criminalised (via employment exclusion) for crimes they have already served their time for. As of January 2016, Uber announced it will loosen its policies and will no longer reject people who have records of non-violent and non-sexual offences (e.g. petty theft, check fraud and certain misdemeanours). Obviously and fairly enough, those guilty of driving-related offences, such as DUI's, are off the table for eligibility. But, giving prior offenders the chance to rebuild their lives starts with paid work and participating in society.

Employment and social control

Having a job demands personal responsibility and provides meaning to life and thus deters ex-offenders from reoffending, as argued by Cornish & Clarke (2013). Moreover, employment and better wages have more significant positive effects on reducing recidivism than increases in the severity of punishment  (Myers, 1983). Employment provides routine and structure to everyday behaviour, strengthens bonds with the community, and acts as a form of social control. In the workplace, ex-offenders are under the supervision of conventional staff and must conform to certain workplace standards and practices of professionalism. In the context of Uber, ex-offenders as drivers are subject to two tiers of accountability: (1) They are accountable to Uber's rigorous background screenings and oversight; and (2) are continually dependent upon the real-time observation and evaluation of their customer passengers. In this repeat and real-time evaluation process, ex-offenders as Uber drivers, are even more liable to maintain good social behaviour than, for example, more isolated jobs such as stocking warehouse shelves, landscaping, construction, etc.

Uber drivers have a tracking system  that monitors them throughout every step of their actions. Meanwhile, Uber is continually improving its safety features to monitor driver's speed and braking behaviour via GPS. With today's scientific advancements, we like to believe that with risk-prediction and over-surveillance we can prevent misbehaviour and tragedy with perfect accuracy. But, often, misfortune is the product of randomness beyond our control. The "bad guys" will continue to slip through the cracks if the larger macrostructural failures that drive crime are not addressed, such as mass inequality, untreated mental health conditions and easy access to guns. While over-securitisation and risk-prevention attempt to make society safer, it is best to be aware of its negative side effects like employment exclusion. In the words of former Boston police commissioner, Ed Davis, who sits on Uber's safety advisory board, "A background check is just that — It does not foresee the future."

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