States Ban the Box: Removing Barriers to Work for People with Criminal Records

February 26, 2015

Around 65 million Americans of working age have criminal records. Finding a job isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for them.

Sometimes, formerly incarcerated individuals simply lack the knowledge and skills that would make them employable; other times, they are barred from filling certain jobs by federal or state laws. But in many instances, employers simply are reluctant to hire people with criminal records and eliminate such applicants from consideration before even reviewing their qualifications.

“The question for me,” said Nebraska state Sen. Bill Avery, “was why go to the expense and effort of preparing prisoners for jobs on the outside when we have barriers that impede their ability to even be considered for employment. ‘Ban the Box’ was an important effort to remove one of those barriers.”

“Ban the Box.” It’s a catchy phrase describing a national political movement that seeks to ensure job applicants with criminal records can show a potential employer their qualifications before revealing their criminal histories. “Box” refers to the job application checkbox that people with criminal records are asked to tick.

State Actions

Avery introduced Nebraska’s Ban the Box legislation, Legislative Bill 932, in January. The bill prohibits public employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal past until they establish whether the applicant meets minimum job requirements. The Business & Labor Committee unanimously passed the bill, which was then attached to a larger prison reform bill. That bill passed 46-0 and Gov. Dave Heineman signed it into law in April.

The first state to pass such a law was Hawaii, which removed questions about criminal history from job applications for both public and private positions in 1998. But the phrase “Ban the Box” didn’t appear until years later, in the early 2000s, when the activist group All of Us or None used the term to describe its California-based campaign. The slogan caught on, and Ban the Box is now recognized shorthand for the movement behind an array of state and local legislation, ordinances and orders.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have passed Ban the Box legislation, according to Michelle Natividad Rodriguez of the National Employment Law Project, which supports Ban the Box. Some 70 cities and counties have effectively done the same.

Six states and the District of Columbia—as well as several cities, such as Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and San Francisco—have, like Hawaii, applied Ban the Box to private employers as well as public ones. In fact, some private businesses like Walmart and Target have voluntarily removed questions about criminal history from their job applications nationwide.

The belief undergirding all Ban the Box laws is much the same—that steady employment for people with criminal records is a fundamental part of those individuals’ successful reintegration into society. When individuals with criminal records can’t find work, it doesn’t affect only them. It negatively affects entire communities. A study by the Philadelphia Economy League found that the employment of formerly incarcerated individuals has a significant positive impact on tax revenues. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, in a 2010 report, found that unemployment rates among ex-offenders costs the economy about $60 billion a year in lost productivity and lowered output of goods and services.

Addressing a Problem

Many policymakers believe Ban the Box is part of the solution to this problem.

California Assembly Member Roger Dickinson is among them. He authored his state’s Ban the Box legislation, Assembly Bill 218, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in October 2013; it took effect in July 2014.

“California’s recidivism rate is one of the highest in the nation,” Dickinson said. “And there is growing consensus that we must do all we can as government agencies to reduce reoffending in smart, coordinated and cost-effective ways.”

Much like Nebraska’s law, California’s law prohibits government agencies from asking a job applicant about his or her criminal history until those agencies have evaluated the applicant’s employment qualifications. It doesn’t apply to jobs that require a background check or to criminal justice-related positions.

The bill had many supporters, but it had its critics, too. The California State Association of Counties, for example, wrote that the bill took away “the discretion of local agencies to design an employment policy that works locally.”

According to Dickinson, some disagreement with this legislation stemmed from misconceptions. Certain critics, he said, believed the law “would require those with conviction histories to be hired.” Others believed it “would put vulnerable populations, like children, in harm’s way.”

But since Assembly Bill 218 became law and its provisions have been clarified, some critics have softened their positions.

Faith Conley, the California State Association of Counties’ legislative representative for employee relations, said now that Brown has signed the legislation, counties “are eagerly implementing the new (Ban the Box) policy.

“We believe we can both implement the new policy and also protect public safety and security,” she said.

In Georgia, Ban the Box is set to become law by executive order.

The state’s Criminal Justice Reform Council earlier this year recommended Georgia remove questions about criminal history from state agency job application forms and “instead require that the applicant disclose any criminal history during a face-to-face interview.”

Gov. Nathan Deal intends to issue an executive order reflecting that recommendation, and will do so likely before the General Assembly reconvenes in January, according to Sasha Dlugolenski, a press aide for the governor.

Local Campaigns

Ban the Box campaigns have been especially successful at the local level.

In Indianapolis, for example, the city council in January passed an ordi- nance mandating that city and county agencies and their contractors not ask job applicants about criminal history until later interviews.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard strongly supports Ban the Box.

“Re-entry has been one of the mayor’s top priorities,” said Marc Lotter, the mayor’s communications director.

Each year, Lotter said, some 5,000 formerly incarcerated individuals come into Indianapolis, and “most of them want to turn their lives around. With Ban the Box, it eliminates the chance they’ll be instantly disqualified, and it encourages employers to first identify the potential these applicants hold.”

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