An estimated 70 to 100 million people in the U.S. currently have some sort criminal background. That’s between one in three and one in four people in the whole United States. These criminal records, no matter how minor the offense, can be a real hurdle when looking for a job. There is a real potential that an employer, seeing a prospective employee checked a box on their application indicating criminal history, would reject that application on that basis alone.
If the goal of our criminal justice system is to rehabilitate, barring ex-criminals from gainful employment out of hand is obviously far from ideal. With this in mind, a movement to “Ban the Box” has swept across the nation. 24 states, many passing laws just this year, have passed laws barring public employers, private employers, or both from inquiring about criminal background on a job application. To make matters even more complicated, more than 150 individual cities and counties have passed similar laws that apply just in those smaller jurisdictions.
The spread of these laws is still on the rise, just around a week ago Los Angeles County passed their own Ban the Box ordinance. Connecticut has recently passed a Ban the Box law that will take effect January 1, 2017. On November 30th, the federal government and the Obama administration even finalized regulations preventing the federal government from asking about an applicants’ criminal background before a job has been offered. With the upsurge in “Ban the Box” laws, the question becomes fairly simple. What do these laws mean for employers and employees?
Ban the Box Explained
While the details of any given Ban the Box law vary slightly from law to law, they all have the same basic goal. They make it illegal for the type of employers named by the law to include questions or check-boxes on employment applications asking about the criminal background of an applicant. They don’t, by themselves, prevent an employer from asking about criminal history altogether. However, an employer must raise these questions later in the hiring process. While violations of Ban the Box rules don’t generally allow for private lawsuits from applicants, applicants can report violations to the state who will then follow up with fines or a lawsuit of their own.
As mentioned above, with so many different places creating their own Ban the Box rules the exact boundaries of those rules can vary from place to place. Depending on where an employer operates, there can be exceptions to Ban the Box rules for certain types of jobs—usually positions that are especially safety sensitive. However, exactly what positions are considered “safety sensitive” is in and of itself a complicated legal concept that varies from state to state. Employers seeking to avoid the legal troubles of a Ban the Box violation should speak to an employment law attorney to learn whether there is a Ban the Box law in effect where they operate and if there are any exceptions for the type of positions they are offering.
Beyond the Box: Other Employer Restrictions Regarding Criminal Backgrounds
Ban the box is the tip of the iceberg for state to state differences in how employers must approach an employee’s, or potential employee’s, criminal background. Different states, and even cities and counties within those states, have their own wildly varying laws placing restrictions on either private employers, public employers, or both when it comes to approaching a job applicant or employee’s criminal background.
Depending on where they are an employer may be restricted as to asking about arrests that did not result in a conviction, criminal records which have been sealed or expunged, older criminal records (usually allowing for records no more than five to seven years old), certain types of crimes, or criminal convictions unrelated to the actual position sought. While these laws have not seen the same rapid spread in recent years as Ban the Box, they continue to be passed nationwide.
In fact, earlier this year, Pennsylvania passed one of the most sweeping laws on the issue to date—albeit with a slightly different approach. Pennsylvania’s new law requires law enforcement to remove records of arrests after three years have passed without a conviction. It also allows individuals to petition to limit access to most non-felonies—with an exception for misdemeanors such as sex offenses, child abuse, or witness intimidation—on their criminal records after ten yeas free from arrest or imprisonment. This law, coupled with the fact the Pennsylvania already bars all employers from inquiring about arrests that don’t lead to convictions, have left Pennsylvania with some of the nation’s strongest employment protections for former criminal offenders.
Are These Laws for the Best?
Ultimately, these laws are put in place to prevent returning criminal offenders from being shut out of employment opportunities before they get a chance to show their merits. Those opposed to the spread of Ban the Box argue that employers are best suited to knowing their own employment needs and these sorts of restrictions needlessly increase the costs associated with hiring. They argue that, especially in light of other restrictions on accessing criminal backgrounds, these laws can leave employers in situations where they are left without information they would consider crucial to a hiring or employment decision.
However, despite these objections, it seems more likely that the only way this would truly save costs when hiring for any position that wouldn’t be subject to the common exceptions is if the employer used criminal background as a quick way to disqualify candidates. Where an employer uses criminal history in this way, it creates a serious roadblock to the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of former criminal offenders.
There is nowhere that employers are totally banned from inquiring into criminal history. Ban the Box rules are exclusively a timing related restriction, preventing applications asking about criminal history. Although there are limitations on how background checks can be used a check made as a contingency to employment will likely reveal any criminal history that could be an issue. However, as seen in Pennsylvania, the limitations on criminal background checks are becoming further reaching. There is a real push and pull between the interests of an employer in making informed employment decisions and the interests of a former criminal offender—and society as a whole—in a system that provides the best possible chance for rehabilitation. That being said, a system where an offender is denied that chance outright before the word go is almost certainly not the right one.