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Banning ‘the box’ to give ex-convicts a better chance at finding a job

December 25, 2014 at 6:40 PM EST
Many employers require job applicants to disclose any criminal history, often preventing those with a record from reentering the workforce. But Illinois is one of a number of states working to change this, with a new law prohibiting employers from asking about convictions on initial applications. Special correspondent Brandis Friedman of WTTW reports on the “ban the box” movement.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: a move to make it easier for people who have been convicted of a crime to find employment after being released from prison.

Several states and municipalities are preventing employers from asking about criminal convictions up front. The so-called ban the box movement would eliminate a check-box on initial job applications.

Brandis Friedman from our affiliate WTTW in Chicago has this report.

WOMAN: How do I know I can trust you?

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN, WTTW Chicago: It is a question any employer might ask the students in this room. Each of them has a felony conviction and has served time in prison and each of them wants to prove to a future employer that he or she can be trusted.

Twenty-six-year-old Carl Lynch is one of the students receiving job readiness training from the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps released prisoners transition back into society.

CARL LYNCH, Job Seeker: The economy is always changing. Jobs are always getting tougher. And I feel like it’s just preparing me to be ready to reenter into the work force.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Lynch was released from Illinois State Prison in early July after serving two years for breaking into a car with someone inside. He says a new job will help make him the father he once was to his two children.

CARL LYNCH: I want to feel like the provider I was before I left. know I never can get the time back, but it’s important just for me to be there and let them know that dad’s back.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: He’s hoping to get a job in hospitality or customer service, but the job search has been difficult. And Lynch thinks it’s because of the tiny box on those job applications that asks candidates whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.

CARL LYNCH: It makes you a little uncomfortable. You get that anxiety when you get to that box, like, wow, how are they going to judge me, knowing I committed this crime? How are they going to feel about this?

WOMAN: That has kept a lot of people out of the interview. With this question removed, that would really help you.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Illinois is the latest in a series of states and municipalities to pass a law prohibiting employers from asking applicants if they’d been convicted of a felony on initial job applications.

Phil Schreiber is a labor and employment attorney in Chicago.

PHILLIP SCHREIBER, Labor and Employment Attorney: Essentially, it delays when a prospective employer can inquire about a candidate’s criminal history, until the employer has notified the employee that the employee will be granted an initial interview.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: While each law is slightly different, the goal for each is to get job applicants with convictions past the initial screening.

PHILLIP SCHREIBER: For example, Hawaii says you have to have a conditional offer of employment. Most of these laws have various exceptions do vary somewhat from state to state as well.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: The Illinois law, which takes effects January 1, 2015, applies only to private employers with 15 or more employees. It provides exemptions in situations where state or federal law prohibits hiring applicants with certain convictions, where the new hire would require a fidelity bond that insures employees who work with money, or where the new applicant would need to be licensed under the Emergency Medical Service Assistance Act.

Advocates say a bill like this has been a long time in the making.

ANTHONY LOWERY, Safer Foundation: Employment is the biggest link to reduce recidivism. When people are returning from prison, the first thing that they want to do is get a job to show their worthiness, to show their viability, first of all to themselves and also to their families. Employment discrimination routinely denies that opportunity.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Safer Foundations director of policy and advocacy Anthony Lowery says, as prison populations have boomed, governments are looking for ways to cut expense of incarceration and communities are looking to turn former inmates into productive citizens.

ANTHONY LOWERY: It is the biggest challenge of their lives. The criminal worker is the new civil rights issue of our time. People are routinely denied opportunities for employment, no matter how minor their record is, and no matter how old the record is.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: The Illinois Department of Corrections releases about 30,000 inmates a year, and, of them, half return to Chicago. Of those 15,000, experts say about 80 percent come to one of seven neighborhoods like this one, often, unfortunately known for its culture of poverty and violence.

Ban the box advocates say when entire communities face a glut of people who can’t get jobs, the cycle of poverty just keeps spinning.

CARL LYNCH: I see it every day. I see people recommit and committing crimes that they have done in the past and think something different is going to happen. But it’s not. That’s why I don’t want to go down that route again. I want to try to find work.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Under existing federal and state laws, employers aren’t allowed to use a conviction as a pre-screening tool. But advocates say it’s not working.

Todd Belcore is the lead attorney of the community justice unit at the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

TODD BELCORE, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law: Pre-screening is a constant. It’s being done in nearly every state.

And so there’s — that’s why the movement actually precipitated. Those people are frustrated. We’re asking people who commit crimes, who endure the time, who get the education necessary to get extra training and do all these things to get their lives back on track. And when they do all those things, there’s no job opportunities available for them because they’re being denied outright.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: But because of those laws, attorney Jeffrey Risch, who chairs the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Employment Law Council, argues ban the box measures aren’t necessary.

JEFFREY RISCH, Illinois Chamber of Commerce Employment Law Council: Before ban the box, there was Title VII. Before ban the box, there was the Illinois Human Rights Act. There are other — there are a variety of federal laws that protect candidates from having employers use criminal convictions or arrest records as filters. Those exist. They still exist.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: He says employers already following those existing laws won’t have a problem obeying yet another one, and employers will still be allowed to learn an applicant’s criminal history, just not up front.

JEFFREY RISCH: How recent, what’s the nature of the underlying offense, what facts can we gather, and what exactly, precisely is this person going to do for the employer,all that has to be taken into consideration.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: And that’s exactly what advocates for people like Carl Lynch are hoping.

WOMAN: It motivates me to see a person go out there and get a job.

CARL LYNCH: I’m going to feel like I got a good chance every day, because if I’m going to sit back and be sad and blue, that’s — that’s not going to get me anywhere.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: In Illinois alone, it could make a difference for more than three million people who have a criminal background.

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