David J. Trone, a Democrat, represents Maryland’s 6th Congressional District in the House.
It’s well known that our incarceration rates are the highest in the world, that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 4.3 percent of the world’s population. At this point, 70 million Americans have an arrest or conviction record. The cost associated with our excessive sentencing and draconian laws is astronomical. Every year, taxpayers spend more than $80 billion just on prisons and jails.
An even bigger cost is to lives that have been needlessly damaged. Once convicted of a crime, a person finds that his access to housing, bank credit and education drops dramatically. Studies show that callbacks and job offers are reduced by half for applicants with a criminal record and that nearly 60 percent of individuals with criminal records remain unemployed one year after release.
Obviously, these returning citizens lose opportunities for themselves and their families. But we all lose when they cannot contribute to the economy and other parts of society as they are capable.
Public- and private-sector actions are beginning to show progress. Prison populations have been reduced by significant margins in states. A majority of states are implementing significant reforms in sentencing guidelines.
Maryland is one place where we can see both sides of this issue. Thirty-three states and more than 150 cities and counties, including many in Maryland, have adopted fair-chance hiring for public-sector workers and state contractors. Unfortunately, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed legislation late last month that would have banned “the box” for private employers in the state. The bill passed the General Assembly by wide majorities.
But at the national level, another Marylander is leading the effort to implement this needed reform.
The most significant action at the national level is the Fair Chance Act, sponsored by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). The legislation is co-sponsored by Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate. I am proud to be among them. It passed out of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which Cummings chairs, in late March. The House now has an opportunity to take bold action in passing it. The Republican senators who are co-sponsoring the act believe it will receive positive treatment in their body as well.
The goal of the legislation is to give formerly incarcerated individuals a fairer chance at finding a job by prohibiting the federal government and federal contractors from asking about the criminal history of a job applicant before a conditional offer of employment.
The Fair Chance Act would prevent all three branches of the federal government from requesting criminal history information from applicants until they reach the conditional offer stage. The same restriction would apply to all federal contractors — with narrow exceptions allowed for positions in law enforcement and national security. The legislation also would require the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in coordination with the Census Bureau, to issue a report on the employment statistics of formerly incarcerated individuals so that we have good information for taking additional steps.
My experience in the private sector suggests this law will have a real impact. Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, of which I was president before joining Congress, was one of the first national businesses to “ban the box” on employment applications and has hired more than 100 returning citizens. It was a great decision for the company and the employees. Compared with other employees, returning citizens working at Total Wine proved very reliable and had 14 percent better retention rates. As the head of a national effort on returning citizens sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, I heard similar stories from top executives whose companies stopped asking for criminal histories on job applications.
In short, while we continue to have a real problem with overincarceration and helping returning citizens transition to life after their sentences are served, some progress is being made.