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'Ban the box' movement advances with new federal employment regulations
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President Obama announced last week the federal government will end the practices of asking job applicants about felonies, a move advocates say with improve upward mobility and prevent recidivism.. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
The so-called "ban the box" movement appears to be picking up momentum.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order last week, ordering the federal government to remove the check box on federal job applications asking about felony criminal records, except where required by law.

The yes-or-no check box that inquires about felony convictions is common on job applications in the U.S., and Obama has been at the forefront of a movement urging private employers to ban the box, arguing that the stigma prevents ex-convicts from finding jobs and inadvertently exacerbates criminal recidivism.

"We know that having millions of people in the criminal justice system, without any ability to find a job after release, is unsustainable, the president said shortly before announcing the decision. Its bad for communities and its bad for our economy.

New York City passed similar legislation this past summer, joining seven states and 27 cities in disallowing all employers private and public from asking about criminal history until after a conditional offer of employment is made, The National Law Review reported. In total, seven states and 27 cities have passed different versions instituting "ban the box," according to the National Employment Law Project.

Jeffery Robinson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in an essay for Brookings Institute that the action will deter the Scarlet Letter Effect and give applicants an opportunity to introduce themselves to an employer in person and to explain the circumstances behind a conviction.

Robinson, who praised the federal compromise that does allow background checks only after meeting the applicant first, said the new guideline sits in the middle ground of where policy and procedure meet hearts and minds. A reminder not to fool yourself, we need both.

Employers may be unaware of how much they're influenced by disclosure of a felony on a job application, which research has shown can be a job-killer. The National Institute of Justice found that applications from a convicted felon are three times less likely to receive callbacks than identical applications from those without a criminal record.

Still, some business groups are concerned the trend could leave employers more susceptible to lawsuits, according to Bloomberg. As more employers abandon the practice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said businesses that discriminate based on criminal record could be in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act if the practice has a disproportionate effect on race.

In 2003, the National Bureau for Economic Research found that job applicants with white-sounding names were twice as likely to get interviews as those with black-sounding names, even when their credentials were identical. A study in Milwaukee found it was nearly impossible for black ex-cons to find work without face-to-face contact with an employer, according to Vox.

This has natural implications for upward mobility and recidivism. The risk of former inmates going back to prison drops 63 percent when they can find work.

Michelle Chen at the newsmagazine The Nation said ban the box is inherently tied to racial justice because mass incarceration is also tied to race, noting that Kids of color in aggressively policed neighborhoods are, for instance, disproportionately vulnerable to incurring trumped-up pot-related charges; they may be pressured to plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence, and regardless of actual guilt, conviction may be all but assured if they cant afford decent legal defense institutionalized consequences that middle-class whites may never face for their youthful indiscretions.