June 19, 2014

THE D.C. Council rightly wants to ban the unfair hiring practice that disqualifies people with a criminal record from even being considered. Employment for ex-offenders is key to combating recidivism, and it makes sense to get all residents involved in improving the city’s economy. But business concerns about proposed legislation need to be taken into account, or the council risks driving away jobs and hurting the people it aims to help.

The Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014, tentatively approved by the council this month, would give new protections against discrimination to job applicants with criminal records. No longer would employers be allowed to ask on employment forms, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” — thus denying applicants any chance of explaining extenuating circumstances. Applicants would get a fair hearing, and employers would still be able to take an applicant’s criminal history into account before making a final offer.

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce signaled its support for the bill as it emerged from committee. The measure wasn’t creating a new right for ex-offenders to sue potential employers, and it allowed employers to ask about criminal records after an initial interview.

However, the bill was changed at the last minute. It would ban questions about criminal history until a conditional job offer is made and require employers to explain in writing why they were withdrawing an offer. Business leaders argue that this is too inflexible. “How much do we want to regulate how a business wants to hire somebody?” was the apt question from D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), the lone vote against the measure.

A final vote is set for this month. Some council members have acknowledged that changes may be needed to avoid unintended consequences. We hope they are serious, because the issues raised by the private sector — which include the need to better educate companies on this issue — are legitimate.

LORTON, VA-MAY 14:Maximum Security Cell in Building 2, The Adjustment Unit at the Historical DC Correctional Complex. (Benjamin C Tankersley/For The Washington Post)

The council should want to make the local business community a partner in this important effort, rather than to alienate it.

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