Delaware should "Ban the Box" for public employment

This editorial was published in today's News Journal.

 

We often tell our children that a job is a source of pride and independence. Having gainful employment empowers people to take control of their lives. This is especially true for the tens of thousands of Delawareans who have run afoul of the law, paid their debt to society and are looking to put their lives back on track.

However, even after the jail term, probation, fines and restitution have been fulfilled, life post-conviction is often fraught with unique challenges. The work to repair damaged relationships, heal traumas and chart new paths forward begins with a job and a steady paycheck. But the mark of a criminal conviction, no matter how minor, can stand out among all the other information provided on a job application. Even for a jobseeker whose crime was long ago and has been all but forgotten, a simple checkmark in a box can send that application to the trash.

In Delaware, more than two-thirds of the men and women we release from prison end up back there within three years, according to the Criminal Justice Council. Without a stable job, without regular income, we know that the person who has committed a crime before is more likely to do so again.

That is why everyone who is willing should have an equal chance to seek an honest living. House Bill 167, which I introduced last year, would prevent most public agencies in Delaware from requiring job applicants to disclose criminal history information when moving through the early steps of the hiring process. This does not impact private employers and does not eliminate an agency’s ability to look into an applicant’s criminal history – employers would retain every right to ask about an applicant’s criminal record, even perform a criminal background check, just not until after that applicant has sat down for an interview.

This is not a “hire ex-felons” bill. This is a “foot-in-the-door” bill. It gives otherwise qualified individuals an opportunity to be considered on their merits first and their criminal histories second. This legislation would never force any manager to hire anyone he or she feels is not qualified for the job advertised. There also are several exceptions written into the bill for law enforcement, courts and other agencies where a clean record is a legal requirement for employment. No school would ever be required to hire an applicant who could pose a danger to children.

In addition, the bill makes it clear that, before declining an application from someone with a criminal record, a public hiring manager needs to consider that applicant’s individual circumstances. How long ago did the crime take place, and does that crime have any connection to the duties of the job to be filled? Most importantly, the bill allows the person who wants that job, who wants to do the right thing, to offer up his or her own evidence of rehabilitation, good conduct and positive motivation.

A barrier in the form of a checkmark in a box ensures that a high percentage of offenders who have served their time will continue to be haunted by their pasts, frustrated in the job hunt and on the path back to prison. If we are serious about curbing recidivism and helping Delawareans who are trying to right their wrongs, then we as a state owe it to them to lead by example.

This bill would have no impact on private businesses, but some companies already are moving in this direction. In preparation for an employment access law that took effect in Minnesota on January 1, Minneapolis-based retailer Target announced that it will no longer ask for criminal history information on any of its job applications nationwide.

Ten other states and dozens of local jurisdictions, including Wilmington and Philadelphia, have enacted similar policies. I firmly believe that Delaware should join them in saying that citizens with convictions on their record at least deserve the chance to show they’re more than just a checkmark in a box.

 

James “J.J.” Johnson

State Representative

16th District