Over seven million New Yorkers — 38 percent of the state’s population — have a criminal record, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. The stigma of a criminal conviction often carries with it a sort of “civil death”: no job, no cash, no place to live. In such circumstances, the only option many of the formerly incarcerated may see is to continue to resort to a life of crime. Many land back in prison. It’s a vicious cycle for the individuals involved and a losing proposition for society.
Employment is a major factor in reducing recidivism. People with a criminal past have a much better chance of getting hired when they are able to get to an interview in the hiring process. But with the advent of almost universal background checking, getting to the interview has been extremely difficult for most job seekers with conviction histories. They are automatically turned away when they answer “yes” to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
To level the playing field, civil rights organizations in California began about ten years ago to urge local governments to remove questions about criminal convictions from job applications and initial interviews so that people could be judged on their qualifications.
The campaign, dubbed "ban the box" – because of a box on job application forms asking if the applicant has a criminal record - scored a pioneering victory when San Francisco removed the criminal record question from city job applications.
Since then eleven states have adopted ban the box, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. Over 60 cities and counties have ban the box policies, including Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Both Walmart and Target voluntarily removed questions about criminal history information from their initial job applications.
In August 2011, Mayor Bloomberg announced a $130 million initiative to increase the education and employment prospects for young black and Latino men. Recognizing the impact of criminal records on their opportunities for employment, the mayor signed an executive order that prohibits city agencies from asking about an applicant’s criminal history on initial job applications or in the initial interview. The city extended this policy to contractors doing business with the Human Services Department.
A bill recently introduced in the City Council, the Fair Chance Act, would expand the current city policy to cover private as well as public employers, moving the criminal record question to later in the hiring process. It would prevent employers from asking about a criminal history until they have decided that an applicant has the qualifications for the job and is the person that they want to hire. After the applicant is given a conditional offer of employment, the employer can do a background check and ask for information about convictions that may be relevant to the job.
Nothing in the Fair Chance Act prevents an employer from running a background check after giving a job applicant a conditional offer of employment. This should not be a hardship for business because background checks cost money, so most businesses wait to do one until after a job interview.
Another bill, the Fair Application Act (S3386), has been introduced in the state Senate. It too would prevent employers from asking job applicants about their conviction history until after a job offer is made. But its chances of being enacted into law are much slimmer than the bill in the Council.
New York State’s economy would benefit from the tax revenue created by promoting the employment of able-bodied qualified people while at the very same time lowering our massive outlay of public funds for prisons. Both in terms of economics and recidivism, banning the box makes sense.