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D.C. Council weighs ‘banning the box’ asking for criminal history

SOME 60,000 D.C. residents, about 10 percent of the population, have a criminal history. Many of them are unemployed, and standing between them and any shot at a job is one little box.

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” is a question that often appears on employment forms. Check yes and you are likely to be automatically disqualified, with no opportunity to say when or what the offense was, explain any extenuating circumstances or put the criminal history in perspective. Legislation that would “ban the box” is pending before the D.C. Council and deserves thoughtful consideration.

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The “Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014,” sponsored by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is part of a growing national movement that seeks to prevent employers from asking about criminal records during the initial stage of hiring for a job. Under the bill, employers would be allowed to ask about convictions only after an applicant has been conditionally offered a job. There would be no bar to employers conducting criminal background checks, and employers would still be able to take an applicant’s criminal history into account before making a final offer. A convicted embezzler could be turned down for a bank job, but someone guilty of drug possession 15 years ago shouldn’t automatically be turned away from a cashier’s job.

The aim of getting employers to look at each applicant fairly is laudable. Not only has the experience seemed to be positive in the 10 states and 50 localities that have enacted similar policies but use of the box is generally not seen as a best practice. Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012 recommended that employers not ask about convictions in employment applications.

Nonetheless, it’s important that the council be careful in calibrating this legislation so as not to subvert the ability of employers — who have a duty to protect their businesses and workplaces — to make informed judgments about their workers. Is there, for example, an argument to be made for allowing employers to raise the issue earlier in the hiring process, perhaps after the first interview? Should screening out applicants be allowed for jobs in which a felony conviction by law would be a disqualifier? Are small businesses that can’t afford the expense of criminal record checks at a disadvantage?

These are some of the questions the council should consider as it works to open the workplace to people who pose no danger, have paid their debt to society and now only want to be productive.

 
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