'Ban the Box' Movement Spreads Across America


Last November, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order to "ban the box" - the widely-hated part of a job application that allows federal agencies and other employers to force prospective hires to disclose criminal their criminal record history.

In issuing the order, the president declared government hiring shouldn't use criminal history "to screen out" applicants before their qualifications have been considered. The order allows federal hiring officials to ask about past convictions, but only after making a conditional job offer.

New measures such as this are clearly needed to halt the premature termination of job prospects for the 600,000+ former inmates who re-enter the job market each year. And thankfully, the movement is taking hold, not just for the federal government, but in the private sector, too. Since Obama issued his order, the 'ban-the-box' campaign is percolating at the municipal and state level across the country.

Most recently, the states of Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin imposed the policy on their own governments, bringing the total to 23 participating states. The prohibition also covers private employers in seven states: Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Over 100 cities and counties now have their own "ban the box" laws. That includes nine of the 30 most populous U.S. cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore and Portland, Oregon acted before their states adopted a statewide measure. Altogether, the National Employment Law Project calculates, about 185 million people - over half the nation's total population - now live in jurisdictions with 'ban the box' or similar restrictions.

Last December, Portland joined the roster of major cities barring employers from using their own or third-party criminal record checks before extending a conditional job offer. The same month, Philadelphia expanded an earlier groundbreaking "ban the box" law by attaching onto it a new ordinance, which bars both public- and private-sector employers from asking about, taking into consideration, or sharing information about arrests which did not lead to a conviction. Philadelphia employers may only consider convictions from the previous seven years the job applicant was not incarcerated.

The most recent major city to act is Austin, now the nation's eleventh largest. In March, the state capital became the first city in Texas to approve a "ban the box" ordinance. It covers only private-sector employers with 15 or more workers for 20 weeks a year (federal and state agencies are exempted, along with private membership clubs). It also forbids using criminal records to deny promotions to current workers, and spells out factors for making individual assessments of whether an applicant with a criminal record is suitable for a position.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com