Do You Have to Reveal a Criminal Record When Applying for a Job?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Convicted criminals dread the box. That's the job application question that says, "Check here if you've been convicted of a crime." The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that 70 million people in the U.S. have some sort of criminal record, and 700,000 return to their communities from prison each year. Some have completed vocational training and education and desperately want a job -- but many are immediately removed from consideration once revealing a criminal past.

A "Ban the Box" campaign is working to remove the stigma by prohibiting questions regarding a criminal background during preliminary employment screenings. California's Ban the Box law went into effect July 1 for public-sector hiring; San Francisco's ordinance goes into effect next month, impacting private sector employers with more than 20 employees. Los Angeles is considering a similar measure.

The California state law requires state, county, city and special districts to remove the conviction-history question from their job applications; however, employers are allowed to ask about a criminal history once an applicant meets the "minimum employment qualifications" for the job.

"When we first introduced the bill nearly two and a half years ago, our goal was to advance a simple but powerful message -- that everyone who works hard deserves a second chance to turn their lives around and give back to their communities," said California assembly member Roger Dickinson. "We are heartened to see that the state's public sector employers have embraced fair-chance hiring and that they are now setting an example for the private sector to follow."

Some 60 cities and counties – as well as ten states – have adopted similar policies, according to NELP. Target and Walmart have also voluntarily removed the question regarding criminal records from their initial job applications.

A study by the Safer Foundation found that formerly incarcerated persons with one year of employment had a 16% recidivism rate over three years, compared to a 52.3% rate for all Department of Correction releases. Even just 30 days of employment lowered the three-year recidivism rate to 20%.

But the "Ban the Box" movement is not a cause without questions.

"The question is, does this legislation protect applicants' rights, or does it simply disguise their criminal past?" writes Heather Browning, executive vice president of OPENonline, an employment background screening firm. "Ban the Box has also resulted in a patchwork of laws that create inconsistencies and make it increasingly difficult to perform what most would consider even the most basic due diligence in the screening process. Companies with multiple locations may have different regulations depending on the Ban the Box legislation specific to that locale. Another source of contention in the movement are criminal convictions. If the convictions are clearly job related, should they be disclosed early in the hiring process to prevent instances of negligent hiring?"

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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