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DC Council Passes “Ban the Box” Law

January 14, 2011

In an 11 to 0 vote, the DC City Council voted last month to pass the “Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act” of 2010, aimed at preventing discrimination in hiring based on criminal history.  Popularly known as “ban the box,” such measures require employers to remove check boxes or other questions on job application forms asking if applicants have a criminal record, which proponents maintain effectively deters ex-offenders from applying for many jobs at all, pushing them out of the legal workforce.  Employers are further expected to limit background checks to certain jobs and defer those checks until later in the hiring process.

In most cities, denying employment based on criminal history is not considered discriminatory, and those who have been turned down based on a former offense have no recourse through existing equal employment laws.  Proponents of the ban the box bills point to rising incarceration numbers for nonviolent crimes nationwide, and the difficulty urban areas have with unemployment exacerbated by the number of ex-offenders in the workforce.  They cite increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders as a holistic public safety measure which, along with expanding housing and drug treatment opportunities, is designed to ease reentry and diminish chances of reversion to criminal behavior.

Similar laws are already on the books in 25 other cities, including Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco and Seattle.  In many cases, such policies are restricted to city government positions, though certain cities such as Boston have expanded them to apply to private vendors doing business with the city.  The DC bill currently applies only to municipal workers, and further requires city agencies to consider balancing factors when reviewing applications from ex-offenders, including evidence of rehabilitation, time passed since the offense and the relevance of the offense to the position sought.  Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. has suggested coverage of the bill may be expanded to private vendors based on subsequent review of the law.

Political mobilization around such measures is a challenge, due to the fact that those convicted of felonies do not have the right to vote.  In DC, it is estimated that 16,000 people are under supervision of the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.  Nationwide, one in 45 people are under criminal supervision, and one in 20 have some kind of criminal record.

The December 21 vote by the City Council concluded a longstanding campaign by supporters of the measure, which included a get-out-the-vote effort last August headlined by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, sportscaster Glenn Harris and boxing promoter Rock Newman.

Michael Paarlberg

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