BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – As policies that limit when employers may ask applicants about their criminal histories gain popularity nationwide, advocates are pushing similar measures in Alabama, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have implemented “ban the box” laws, which also are in place in 51 cities and counties in states that haven’t adopted the guidelines, according to the National Employment Law Project, or NELP, an advocacy group.
The growth in the policies’ popularity comes as NELP, other groups and federal prosecutors are forcing counties across the country to reform their local criminal justice systems to make them fairer. President Barack Obama’s administration has joined such efforts, advocating alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders and support for programs aimed at helping convicts re-enter society.
Skeptics, however, say that while the “ban the box” policy is rooted in good intentions, it presents legitimate challenges for businesses involving safety, liability, lost time and money.
“For a business owner, time is money and it can be very challenging,” said Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business. The small business advocacy group fought statewide “ban the box” proposals in the Louisiana legislature in 2014.
Alabama jailed 820 per 100,000 adults in 2014, the third-highest incarceration rate in the country behind Louisiana and Oklahoma, according to a September report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also have adopted “ban the box” polices, according to the National Employment Law Project report.
City leaders in Mobile, Alabama, approved a “ban the box” policy for public jobs in late 2014 and asked the county’s personnel board to implement it in the 21 jurisdictions it covers. The board unanimously voted against it in January 2015. Mobile County Personnel Board Director Donald Dees said mayors and other elected officials from around the county showed up to voice their opposition. Law enforcement officials also expressed concerns about the proposal.
In 2014, Alabama lawmakers passed legislation allowing people with expunged records to legally withhold listing criminal charges on job applications. Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, says he plans to refile broader “ban the box” legislation that he first proposed in 2015, but which got lost amid a larger discussion on prison reform.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell said he’s also looking to implement the policy for city jobs via executive order within 30 days.
For Alabamians with criminal records, finding a stable job can hinge on an employer’s willingness to take a chance on an applicant with a checkered past. Ex-offenders and advocates say even with the right qualifications and experience, it’s rare to move past the application to an interview.
“People see a felony and it’s almost like you’ve got a horn sticking out of your head,” said Jay Pace, 35, who served about 20 months in prison on drug charges and is looking for work.
“Rather than sitting a person down, talking to them, hearing them out, investigating, seeing the details, they just see that check and it’s over with. They don’t want to go any further,” he said.
The “ban the box” or “fair chance” policies usually require employers to remove questions about criminal charges from applications. After determining whether the applicant is qualified for the job, they can inquire about past convictions and consider such factors as how long ago the offenses occurred and whether they could have an effect on the job. A policy that was recently amended in Philadelphia requires employers to ask about a candidate’s criminal history after making a conditional job offer. The city initially approved the policy in 2011.
Many policies cover applicants seeking public-sector work, although at least seven states have passed laws that apply to private employers as well, according to a report NELP released last month. The federal government has encouraged the Office of Personnel Management and federal contractors to use the guidelines when possible.
Several national chains including Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot already use the policies in their application process, said Stephen Stetson, policy analyst for the Alabama ARISE Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit group that pushes for better state policies to help low-income Alabamians.
In Alabama, “There is a wide coalition of folks that are interested in this issue and one of the exciting things is that we know that the climate is right for criminal justice reform based on the Prison Reform Task Force and its various subcommittees,” Stetson said. The Prison Reform Task Force, composed of state lawmakers, agency directors and others, was formed in 2014 to investigate ways to ease overcrowding in the state’s prison system.
Milito says the policy may need some refining. If employers are forced to investigate a candidate’s background after the hiring process is almost complete, it could put them at risk for losing alternate candidates, she said.
“It’s not about not giving somebody a second chance; it’s about being able to have that conversation with someone sooner,” she said.
But supporters say delaying questions on an applicant’s criminal history could improve opportunities for ex-offenders and reduce recidivism because they could potentially land a job during an interview and wouldn’t automatically be rejected – or assume they’d be.
“We’re looked at as a plague and we need to be looked at as an opportunity,” said Paul Dube, 29, who has pending drug charges and is participating in re-entry programs with the help of a nonprofit in Alabama.
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