Crossing Party Lines to Eliminate the Stigma of a Criminal Record

Bipartisan action across the country can give people with criminal records a fair shot at employment.

An applicant goes through paperwork at a Manhattan job fair on January 17, 2013 in New York City. Proposed policy changes to "ban the box" would remove what has become a barrier to employment for individuals with criminal records.
National Journal
Christine Owens
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Christine Owens
April 30, 2014, 6:45 a.m.

It’s rare that Sen. Rand Paul and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er can find com­mon ground on any­thing, but on the is­sue of crim­in­al-justice re­form, the tea-party lead­er is on the same page as our highest law-en­force­ment of­ficer. Already, lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives in Con­gress have made re­form of ex­cess­ive man­dat­ory sen­ten­cing and oth­er crime-con­trol meas­ures a top pri­or­ity. And now, by cham­pi­on­ing a com­mon­sense policy called “ban the box,” politi­cians from both parties are break­ing down em­ploy­ment bar­ri­ers for the more than 65 mil­lion people — one in four adults — in the U.S. who struggle to find work with a crim­in­al re­cord.

Ban-the-box policies of­fer a fair chance to job ap­plic­ants with crim­in­al re­cords to get a foot in the door. They re­move the re­quire­ment to dis­close crim­in­al re­cords at the first stage of the ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess. That’s im­port­ant be­cause all too of­ten em­ploy­ers do not con­sider the qual­i­fic­a­tions, skills, and tal­ents of an ap­plic­ant asked to im­me­di­ately dis­close past mis­takes out of con­text and without ex­plan­a­tion. Em­ploy­ers call back less than 20 per­cent of white ap­plic­ants and only 5 per­cent of Afric­an Amer­ic­an ap­plic­ants who check the crim­in­al his­tory box, ac­cord­ing to a 2003 study pub­lished in the Amer­ic­an Journ­al of So­ci­ology.

A sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of these crim­in­al re­cords are old or in­volve minor of­fenses, res­ults of the pro­longed “war on drugs” and over-crim­in­al­iz­a­tion. But in the lives of men and wo­men, dads and moms try­ing to provide for them­selves and their fam­il­ies today, they of­ten cre­ate an in­sur­mount­able stigma and bar­ri­er to find­ing em­ploy­ment. Paul, like many Amer­ic­ans, has a per­son­al con­nec­tion to this crisis. In his case, a friend with a 30-year-old marijuana con­vic­tion still “must check the box” when ap­ply­ing for work. While testi­fy­ing in sup­port of sen­ten­cing re­form at a re­cent Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary hear­ing, Paul ex­plained, “This is a lifelong prob­lem, then, with em­ploy­ment. People talk about it. You’ve got to check the box that you are a con­victed felon. And I think for a non­vi­ol­ent felony, we need to get away from a lifelong pun­ish­ment where you really have dif­fi­culty get­ting em­ploy­ment after this.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing dir­ect aim at this crisis. Hold­er con­vened a Cab­in­et-level “Reentry Coun­cil” tasked with re­du­cing bar­ri­ers to em­ploy­ment for people with crim­in­al re­cords. Fed­er­al of­fi­cials have pledged to turn the gov­ern­ment in­to a mod­el em­ploy­er, and have is­sued a series of dir­ect­ives that break down walls to ree­m­ploy­ment for people with minor of­fenses. In April 2012, for ex­ample, the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tun­ity Com­mis­sion is­sued a land­mark dir­ect­ive lay­ing bare how crim­in­al back­ground checks dis­pro­por­tion­ately screen people of col­or out of em­ploy­ment op­por­tun­it­ies, and set­ting forth clear guidelines for private- and pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ers to com­bat this dis­crim­in­a­tion.

The bi­par­tis­an move­ment has also taken hold across the states. In April, the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors of Neb­raska and Geor­gia, two deeply red states, signed le­gis­la­tion to re­duce re­cidiv­ism by help­ing formerly in­car­cer­ated people get back to work. Neb­raska be­came the first red state to re­move con­vic­tion in­quir­ies from job ap­plic­a­tions for state em­ploy­ment. Geor­gia Gov. Nath­an Deal also pledged to “ban-the-box” by ex­ec­ut­ive or­der. Deal’s spokes­per­son provided a com­pel­ling jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the policy: “The gov­ernor will im­ple­ment ban-the-box at the state level and hope that private em­ploy­ers will fol­low suit. This will af­ford those with blem­ishes on their re­cords a shot at a good job, which is key to pre­vent­ing a re­turn to crime.”

Since Hawaii ad­op­ted the first ban-the-box policy in 1998, a total of 11 states and more than 60 cit­ies and counties have ad­op­ted policies to delay con­vic­tion in­quir­ies in the hir­ing pro­cess, in­clud­ing six states and nearly 20 cit­ies and counties since 2013, reach­ing one-third of the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion and many of the na­tion’s most di­verse cit­ies.

Some ban-the-box policies are fo­cused on pub­lic-sec­tor jobs, turn­ing the gov­ern­ment in­to a mod­el for the private sec­tor to fol­low, but a grow­ing num­ber en­sure fair ac­cess to job-seekers in the private sec­tor as well. Last year, the re­tail gi­ant Tar­get ex­pan­ded the new ban-the-box policy in its home state of Min­nesota to all of its stores na­tion­wide, re­cog­niz­ing that a “nu­anced crim­in­al back­ground check pro­cess “¦ gives qual­i­fied ap­plic­ants with a crim­in­al his­tory a second chance” while main­tain­ing safety and se­cur­ity.

In Bal­timore on Monday, the city coun­cil ap­proved a ban-the-box meas­ure ap­ply­ing to private em­ploy­ers, des­pite op­pos­i­tion from or­gan­ized busi­ness in­terests. And in New York City, lead­ers began the pro­cess on Tues­day of weigh­ing a sim­il­ar meas­ure ap­ply­ing to all em­ploy­ers.

Re­mov­ing the check box from ini­tial job ap­plic­a­tions is an im­port­ant step to giv­ing people with crim­in­al re­cords a fair chance of find­ing gain­ful em­ploy­ment and reen­ter­ing our com­munit­ies. Mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans want to move bey­ond mis­takes in their past and achieve the self-suf­fi­ciency, self-re­spect, and pride that comes with work­ing and con­trib­ut­ing to their com­munit­ies.

As lead­ers in the pub­lic and private sec­tor elim­in­ate this high hurdle to find­ing em­ploy­ment, mil­lions of people who want to re­build their lives and con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety may get the fair chance they seek.

Christine Owens is the Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Em­ploy­ment Law Pro­ject, a non­par­tis­an, not-for-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that con­ducts re­search and ad­voc­ates on is­sues af­fect­ing low-wage and un­em­ployed work­ers. For more about NELP, vis­it www.nelp.org.

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