The handcuffs of inmates are seen during a play at a public theatre in Lima. (ENRIQUE CASTRO-MENDIVIL/REUTERS)

OP-ED| Earlier this month, the Washington, D.C. city council voted down a bill to protect people with criminal records from employment discrimination. Yet these protections against employment discrimination are not only urgently needed in D.C., they ought to be implemented on a federal level across the country.

An estimated 65 million Americans, roughly equivalent to one in four U.S. adults, have an arrest or conviction record that would show up in a routine criminal background check. These Americans often face employment discrimination, even if they have a history of arrest with no accompanying conviction or if they have only committed a minor crime. Worse, for so many Americans who have completed their prison sentence, unemployment leads to a cycle of recidivism and repeat incarceration.

We can no longer tolerate this cycle of joblessness and incarceration that is devastating our communities and our economy. With 28.3 percent of arrests targeting African Americans, more than double their percent of the population, discrimination based on conviction records is a racial justice issue as well as an economic crisis.

The D.C. legislation, introduced by council member Marion Barry, would prohibit employment discrimination based on a person’s arrest or conviction history until a conditional offer of employment has been extended, and unless there is a relevant relationship between the criminal record and the job. This represents the gold standard among legislation intended to prevent discrimination, by providing the strongest feasible protection for workers while ensuring that employers are safeguarded.

In the short term, this legislation is urgently needed to provide D.C. communities with economic opportunity. According to an analysis conducted by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, as many as 7,000 D.C. residents may be unemployed solely because of their criminal record. Based on average salaries of working ex-offenders, that translates to more than $150 million in lost income, most of it to families in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods.

A similar situation exists in Detroit, with high unemployment rates stifling our local economy. In response, the Detroit City Council unanimously passed a bill last year to reduce employment discrimination for jobs with the city government or government contractors. Based on Detroit’s experience, we know that local laws are a crucial first step towards ending employment discrimination against people with conviction records. But they do not go far enough.

In the long term, our federal laws must change if we are truly to revitalize our economy and provide hope and opportunity to people with criminal convictions. That is why I introduced H.R. 6220, the Ban the Box Act of 2012, which would ban employers from asking job applicants about their arrest or conviction records until they have made a conditional job offer. Certain employers, like schools and police departments, would be eligible for an exemption from the bill’s requirements to ensure that this legislation does not pose any threat to public safety.

Critically, H.R. 6220 covers not only government employment, but also the majority of private sector jobs. This expansion of protections is essential to turning around the economy in many cities. If enacted, H.R. 6220 would prohibit employment discrimination based on conviction records for all of these employers. Currently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must demonstrate that an employer’s exclusions based on criminal records operate to disproportionately exclude people of a certain race — a much higher standard of proof.

I urge the D.C. City Council to reconsider Mr. Barry’s legislation to prevent employment discrimination. This bill is a first step toward improving the local economy and providing hope and opportunity to those who have already served their time. Yet the patchwork of local or state-wide laws to prevent employment discrimination based on conviction records is no substitute for comprehensive federal legislation. After working to pass Mr. Barry’s legislation, we must, as Americans, come together to promote a lasting solution to this crisis in our cities.

Congressman Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) represents the 13th Congressional District of the United States House of Representatives.

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