The box next to the question on job applications that asks whether a person has ever been convicted of a felony could soon become a thing of the past under a measure proposed by a Washington, D.C. councilman and supported by advocates for ex-offenders.

With few exceptions, the bill—introduced by D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas Jr.—would preclude the city from asking about or considering the criminal record of an applicant for a D.C. city job until the applicant has been selected for an interview.

The local effort is part of a broader initiative to “ban the box” that is gaining acceptance in a growing number of municipalities and states, according to the National Employment Law Project, one of several organizations pushing for an end to the use of criminal records in the initial stage of the hiring process.

“‘Ban the box’ doesn’t say background checks aren’t going to be performed,” said Madeline Neighly, staff attorney at the Oakland office of the National Employment Law Project. “It merely means we’re taking away the chilling effect” of asking the question about a person’s criminal record up front.

Neighly said the initiative is important so that ex-offenders who are returning from prison can take care of their families and contribute to society.

“Criminal background checks are used as an unfair barrier to employment when not related to the job,” she said.

Councilman Thomas, who introduced the “Ban the Box” measure after meeting with ex-offender advocates and constituents who reported trouble getting interviewed due to their criminal records, agrees.

“It is the councilmember’s belief that increasing a person’s ability to interview for a position would give the employer a better opportunity to judge that person on their abilities to perform the work rather than an employer having a preconceived idea of that person’s character based on a past mistake,” said James Pittman, Thomas’ legislative counsel.

Pittman said the goal behind Thomas’ proposed measure is to build a positive track record with “Ban the Box” in D.C. government in order to build a case to eventually expand similar measures in the private sector.

Eliminating the box at the outset of the hiring process could not come soon enough for ex-offenders such as 30-year-old Akil, a certified food handler and former prison cook who recently settled on an $8-an-hour job as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Bethesda.

Akil, who spent half a decade in federal prison for a drug conviction, says he filled out hundreds of job applications since his release from prison in 2008 but seldom heard back from employers. He suspects the reason is because of his criminal record.

“Even if they don’t know what you were locked up for, it puts in their head like, ‘What could he have done?’” Akil explained.

Such experiences are by no means uncommon in the city, where on any given day there are 16,000 ex-offenders under the supervision of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia, and more than half are unemployed, several times the District unemployment rate of roughly 10 percent.

“We have a real problem with employment in the District and a real problem with folks on supervision,” said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for CSOSA.

Courtney Stewart, co-founder of the D.C.-based Re-Entry Network for Returning Citizens, says the unemployment rates among ex-offenders – or “returning citizens,” his favored terminology – concern society in general, not just those with criminal records.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Stewart said. “If you don’t give a man a job, it becomes a public safety issue, because he’s already committed a crime before, and the likelihood of doing it again is very high.”

Stewart doesn’t harbor any notions that eliminating the box will make a dramatic change in employment for ex-offenders. “ it evens the playing field a little more,” he said.

If the D.C. council ultimately decides to “ban the box,” it would be one of roughly two dozen municipalities to do so. Others include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle, to name a few.

The proposed “Ban the Box” measure in the District has been referred to the Council’s Committee on Government Operations and the Environment for a hearing with comments from the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. A hearing date on the matter has not yet been scheduled.

 

Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO