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'Ban the Box' Fair Hiring Policies Take Hold Around the Nation

02/18/2014 04:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Ten years ago, the grassroots civil rights organization, All of Us or None, came up with a simple idea to ease hiring barriers that shut out so many formerly incarcerated persons from jobs.

Advocates began urging local governments to remove questions about convictions from job applications so that people can be judged first on their qualifications. If employers must ask about convictions, they can ask later in the hiring process. The campaign, dubbed "ban the box," scored a pioneering victory in San Francisco, removing the question from city job applications.

San Francisco is again in the vanguard of the ban-the-box movement. This time it's called the Fair Chance Ordinance, and instead of city jobs, the law requires private employers, city contractors, and some housing providers to consider applicants on their merits first, not on their past mistakes. The Board of Supervisors passed it unanimously last week and the Mayor is poised to sign. It couldn't have come at a better time.

An estimated 65 million Americans have an arrest or conviction record that often makes it much harder to find work. Persistent joblessness translates into economic losses for everyone. One study found that lowered job prospects of people with felonies and formerly incarcerated people cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output. Not to mention that serving time reduces annual earnings for men by 40 percent, meaning their families too often fall into a poverty trap.

It's not just economic losses that are prompting policymakers to consider ban-the-box. In the search for smarter approaches to fixing a broken criminal justice system, ban-the-box is appealing. Stable employment is a significant factor in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Yet, research shows that having a criminal record reduces job callbacks by 50 percent. Ban-the-box is one way to lift the stigma of the "record" and allow a person's skills and qualifications to come first.

If 2013 is any indication of what's to come, we can expect ban-the-box to soon reach a tipping point nationwide. Last year, the states of California, Maryland, Minnesota, and Rhode Island enacted legislation, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued an executive order removing the background check question from state applications. There are ban-the-box bills pending in five states -- Delaware, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Virginia. Governor Jack Markell of Delaware even endorsed the policy in his state of the state address, declaring that "we should ban the box for state government hires this year... because marginalizing [people with records] helps none of us."

Inspired by the successes in the United States, the campaign has even taken hold in the U.K., where an organization launched an effort encouraging businesses to give people a second chance by removing the "tick box."

In the United States, ten states have embraced a ban-the-box policy, with four extending it to private employers. At last count, 56 cities and counties had adopted the policy, with 15 applying it to private employers or government contractors. A handful of jurisdictions, including Indianapolis, Louisville, Baltimore, and D.C., are on track to pass ban-the-box laws in 2014 that would apply to government jobs and to private employers or contractors.

In Louisville, the interfaith group Citizens of Louisville Organized & United Together is calling for ban-the-box for the city and its contractors because they found that 160,000 adults in the region have a criminal record.

Advocates recognize that while removing those initial check-boxes is critical to ease barriers to employment, it's not enough. The most effective fair hiring policies don't just delay a background check, they ensure that background checks are used fairly. In San Francisco, that's meant incorporating 2012 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines that call on employers to make individualized assessments instead of blanket exclusions. Consider the time passed since the offense and whether it relates to the job. And because background-check results can be riddled with errors, be sure to give the candidate an opportunity to explain the record. These are straightforward, common-sense recommendations that all employers should adopt.

Tallying the populations in the 10 states and local cities and counties with ban-the-box, more than 100 million Americans -- roughly one-third of the U.S. population -- now live in a jurisdiction with ban-the box. As successful public-sector efforts pave the way in the private sector, we're moving closer to a day when all qualified job-seekers will have an opportunity to compete fairly for work.

Michelle Natividad Rodriguez is a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project in Oakland, California and is leading efforts to promote fair hiring policies nationwide.

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