By Ben Koconis, Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Individuals with criminal records insist they get short shrift when it comes to job opportunities, and now they’re trying to change hiring practices by mounting a campaign to promote new legislation.
A movement -- “Ban the Box”— seeks to pressure politicians and employers to remove criminal history questions from job applications. To date, it has proven effective in several states and appears to be gaining momentum in the District. However, controversy persists on both sides of the hot button issue.
Advocates want a bill that will include both public and private sector employers, but organizations that include the D.C Chamber of Commerce, are uncertain as to whether legislation is the silver bullet that will solve the offender employment issue.
“We have tried to get a bill [that includes both the public and private sectors] passed for four years,” said Philip Fornaci, 51, director of the D.C. Prisoners Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Fornaci said that the D.C version of “Ban the Box” [that he is currently drafting] would initially stop employers from asking about a person’s criminal history until after they have been through the initial interview. If the applicant is qualified and offered a job, an employer could indicate that the position is contingent based on a background check. Employers would then be legally required to inform applicants who were denied employment, in writing, if their decision was based on the applicant’s criminal history.
The bill, if passed, would also mandate that employers consider how long ago an applicant committed an offense, how old they were at the time the offense was committed, and if the offense is in direct conflict with the position. The bill would stop employers from screening applicants based on one question, Fornaci said.
Several advocates of “Ban the Box” have said off the record that both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Washington Board of Trade are attempting to block passage of the bill.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade refused to comment and referred the matter to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Janene Jackson, vice president of Government Affairs for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce said, that she could not comment on “Ban the Box” until after the Executive Committee of the Board votes, but added, she does not think the claims of “Ban the Box” advocates are accurate.
“The D.C Chamber of Commerce supports the employment of all D.C residents regardless of their criminal record as long as they are qualified for the position…We know if you have a criminal record that it may be difficult to find a job—we do not dispute that.”
Jackson further said she is not sure that a legislative solution will be beneficial to the offender employment issue.
“We need to figure out what kind of challenges these people face—is it substance abuse, are there child care issues?" Jackson said substance abuse remains a primary concern of the D.C Chamber of Commerce.
“Sixty-seven percent of people who enter the system, with a substance abuse problem, come out with one. Just because someone is away from drugs [in prison] doesn’t mean they won’t go back to it when they get out. Ban the Box is not going to guarantee jobs,” she said.
Leonard A. Sipes, 59, a senior public affairs specialist for the Court Services and Offender Agency for the District of Columbia, which oversees parole and probation said, his agency is legally forbidden to comment on specific legislation that is being introduced, but said that the offender employment issue is “crucial” to his agency’s agenda.
“One in 45 people nationwide are on criminal supervision whether it is Rockville, Md., the District of Columbia, or Manassas, Va. Criminology statistics estimate that 1 out of 20 people have a criminal record. The question we need to ask is, if you are going to see hundreds of people a day with criminal records, do you want those people employed?”
Sipes said, "It is unusual to see a probation and parole agency take on an employment issue, but we feel this is a public safety issue. The evidence is abundantly clear that people who are working commit fewer crimes."
Debra Rowe, 51, acting executive director of Returning Citizens United, Inc., an organization that is pushing for all encompassing “Ban the Box” legislation, and the rights of ex-offenders, has firsthand experience with difficulties obtaining employment. She said that she thinks it’s directly related to a criminal offense she committed 21 years ago.
“I applied for a government job last night [June 7],” said Rowe who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md. “The problem is that they ask you in the first five or six questions if you have a criminal history. Some [applications] ask if you have been convicted of a criminal offense in the last 10 years, some ask have you ever been convicted.”
Rowe, who earned a M.A. in Human Services, from Lincoln University, in Lincoln, Pa., said she is a certified grant management specialist and a certified correctional health care professional. She hasn’t had any brush-ins with the law in more than 20 years, but her record continues to prevent her from being hired for positions that she feels qualified to fill. Rowe said she’s not alone. There are countless others who are qualified for jobs but who are denied based on their criminal records, she said.
But the bottom line remains -- any version of “Ban the Box” legislation must first be presented to the D.C Council. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said that the bill he plans to submit to the Council will only apply to District government positions until it has been determined that “Ban the Box” legislation is beneficial.
“The bill, as it stands now, will cover only D.C government positions. If we feel that this process is working we will add additional legislation [that would cover the private sector] in phases. We feel that this is the best approach to this issue,” Thomas said.
“What you have here, [are] people who are on two extreme ends of the spectrum,” he added, referring to the D.C. Chamber and “Ban the Box” advocates.