‘Ban the box’ bill gets D.C. Council’s tentative approval after years of debate

After years of abortive efforts, the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to give job applicants with criminal records new protections against discrimination by potential employers.

On a 12 to 1 vote, council members gave initial approval to the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act, which restricts employers’ use of a job applicant’s criminal history.

Proponents have called the bill a necessary step to combat high unemployment and lower recidivism among convicts who have served their sentences and returned to their communities. It is a product of the “ban the box” movement, a reference to forms that ask job applicants to check a box if convicted of a crime.

Although the measure has been embraced in many other jurisdictions, previous attempts in the District to help “returning citizens” have been derailed after employers objected to measures they considered overbroad and a potential invitation to lawsuits.

The new bill, introduced by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), does not give aggrieved job applicants the right to sue employers who refuse to hire them; nor does it make ex-offenders a protected class under the District’s human-rights law. But it does place curbs on when in the hiring process an employer can check an applicant’s criminal background, banning the practice of screening applicants based on their criminal records.

Wells’s original bill said employers could check criminal records only after an initial job offer was extended, but the bill was watered down in committee to allow a background check after a first interview. On Tuesday, however, Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) moved successfully to have the old language restored.

McDuffie’s amendment also included new language that says an employer can withdraw a job offer only for a “legitimate business reason” and would have to, upon the applicant’s request, explain the withdrawal in writing.

That new language generated some objections from council members, some of whom sought to break the amendment into pieces, particularly because of concerns about the “legitimate business reason” provision, which some argued was dangerously vague.

Several members said they would seek further changes before the second and final vote, scheduled for July 14, to “tighten” the amendment and make clearer what are acceptable and unacceptable reasons for withdrawing a job offer after a criminal background check.

Only Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) voted against the bill Tuesday. In an interview, Mendelson said that he supports the “basic thrust” of the legislation but that McDuffie’s amendment is “troublesome,” giving ex-offenders greater rights in the hiring process than other citizens. “This goes way beyond ‘ban the box’ and into telling businesses how to hire,” he said. “How much do we want to regulate how a business wants to hire somebody?”

Wells said he was pleased a “ban the box” bill made it through the council. He said he welcomed tweaks before the final vote but made clear there is no reason for further dawdling. “I will not support any effort that delays a vote on this bill,” he said. “We need to do this before recess. We need to get it done.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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