The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia adopts fair chance hiring practices. Now it’s the federal government’s turn.

The Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York on March 12, 2015. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Earlier this year, I argued on this page that given the huge number of people with criminal records, fair chance hiring practices, such as “ban the box,” were going to be an increasingly needed piece of public policy. I was thus extremely happy to see Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (my governor!) introduce this very plan.

The governor ordered state agencies to remove “questions that would disqualify job seekers on the basis of a criminal record” from applications for jobs in state government (with exceptions for certain occupations, such as state police) and to disqualify only applicants whose records are directly related to the job. Virginia joins 14 other states, D.C., and more than 100 cities in banning the box so that the tens of millions with criminal records can avoid being automatically rejected in a job search.

To be clear, ban the box just gives an applicant a chance to get a second look that he or she might not get otherwise. It doesn’t preclude a background check; it delays it until the applicant is being seriously considered for the job.

Will this make a difference? In fact, research on this question finds that “white men with a felony record were about half as likely as whites without a record to receive a callback after applying for work, while African Americans with a felony record were about one-third as likely to receive a callback as African Americans without a criminal history.”

Moreover, evidence is starting to trickle in that ban the box is helping. Durham, N.C., introduced the procedure in 2010. Four years later, the hiring of people with criminal records had increased by a factor of seven. Follow-up analyses in Minneapolis and Atlanta also reveal progress.

To his great credit, in the face of gridlocked opposition, President Obama is aggressively enacting ideas to help improve the job prospects of disadvantaged workers through executive order, largely through his sway over the federal workforce. It seems to me — and I’m far from alone here — that an executive order to ensure that both federal agencies and federal contractors adopt fair chance hiring practices such as ban the box would fit very neatly into that agenda.

Obama already seems to appreciate the importance of fair chance hiring practices, and not only for reasons of social and racial justice but also for good macroeconomic and fiscal reasons: to boost our depressed labor force participation rate and reduce unnecessary spending on incarceration. In a recent interview with David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the president said:

“When you break down why people are not getting back into the labor force even as jobs are being created, a big chunk of that is the young male population with felony histories…Here’s the good news: there is an increasing realization on the left, but also on the right, politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive…the way we treat non-violent drug crimes is problematic, and from a fiscal perspective, it’s breaking the bank. You end up spending so much more on prison than you would with these kids being in school or even going to college, it’s counterproductive. We’re all responsible for finding a solution to this.”

Some of these hiring practices are already used by the federal Office of Personnel Management, and some agencies follow OPM’s “suitability” criteria, which take into account the nature of the position, the age and seriousness of the offense, and evidence of rehabilitation. But this practice should be required, not discretionary.

There’s more the administration could do in this space. The databases of criminal records are often outdated and wrong, including reporting errors, non-serious offenses that should not have created a record, and lack of resolution information, as when a case has been dismissed. The FBI should be directed to clean up background checks for employment by using the same procedures that allow Brady gun checks to be successfully resolved in three days.

According to the National Employment Law Project, there are 70 million adults with a criminal record that can show up on a background check. They are disproportionately in the minority and often live in communities where high unemployment and lack of opportunity already create steep barriers to getting ahead. If we can lower one of the barriers by banning the box and embracing other fair chance hiring reforms, we should quickly do so in as many places as we can.