DC and States With “Ban the Box” Laws Ban People With Criminal Records From Work

We’re familiar by now with ways employers screen out job applicants with criminal records. Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted “ban the box” laws to give these applicants a fair shot at gainful, legal work.

Turns out that all these states and the District have other laws or regulations that deny them any shot at jobs in various occupations where they could get paid a good bit — or become their own employer in these fields. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

A new report on “employment bans” from the Alliance for a Just Society suggests probably not. The bans here are laws that deny occupational licenses to people who’ve been convicted of certain crimes — or in some cases, any crimes at all.

One can see, I think, reasons for certain bans. A prudent concern for public safety could justify denying licenses as armed guards to people convicted of irrational crimes of violence when they first return to the community.

Someone with multiple convictions of drug dealing on a major scale perhaps shouldn’t get a license as a pharmacist right away. Denying a license to operate or work in a daycare center to someone convicted of child sexual abuse would surely seem reasonable.

But we see that the District reportedly has 72 crime-related restrictions on employment, including 35 applicable to occupational licenses or certifications and others (the number isn’t clear) that restrict business licenses. Illinois, which also has a “ban the box” law, has more than twice as many of the former.

The report, eye-opening as it is, lacks details one might wish for. Happily, the American Bar Association has an online database that specifies “collateral consequences” for licenses, by occupation and jurisdiction.

Some of the District’s one might understand, e.g., a ban on employment as a security officer after conviction of a weapons offense. Others you have to read to believe.

For example, the District denies licenses to buy and/or sell “junk/secondhand personal property” to people convicted of any felony. Any felony or misdemeanor renders someone ineligible for a real estate license or a license to act as an agent for athletes.

Most of the licensing barriers people with criminal records may face aren’t so clear because the ABA (rightly) classifies them as “discretionary.” This is true not only for the District, but for states, my random check indicates.

The District generally invests wide discretion in boards specific to particular occupations or categories thereof. They’re supposed to deny licenses to applicants with criminal records only when the offense “bear[s] directly on the fitness of the person to be licensed.”

Well, what does that mean? Whatever folks on the board decide apparently. But they’ve no such discretion when it comes to ten occupations the law exempts, leaving these to the Mayor’s discretion through the rulemaking process.

A strange collection here. Barbers and cosmetologists, for whom apparently rules were issued barring only those found guilty of “moral turpitude” — as if having knowingly filed a false tax return has anything to do with whether one can skillfully and safely cut hair (or fingernails).

Others in the exempt category include funeral directors, commercial bicycle operators and people who specialize in several types of building systems installation and repairs. What, one wonders, led policymakers to subject these occupations to different standards?

The more important question, of course, is why people who’ve paid their debt to society should suffer “collateral consequences” when they seek licenses to work in occupations they’re demonstrably qualified for, except when their records raise well-founded concerns about harms to others.

I’ve focused here on the District, but returning citizens face barriers to work that engages –and rewards — their specialized skills and/or knowledge everywhere, beyond the prejudices of individual employers. This is also true for some people who had no jail or prison term to return from.

The White House has raised concerns about these barriers, noting that as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Like half the states, the District has no standards specifying the relevance a conviction must have to a particular license, it says.

It cites other concerns as well, e.g., fees and the costs of tuition to meet the education or training requirements. These presumably close doors to many returning citizens, as well as other low-income people. And the need for these isn’t always obvious, as a selective account compiled for the District by the Institute for Justice shows.

Occupational licensing has burgeoned. Roughly five times as many workers were covered by state licensing laws in 2008 as in the early 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of the growth since the mid-60s reflects licensing in new occupations — and in new sectors, e.g., sales, construction.

All states and the District must soon submit comprehensive workforce development plans to receive funds authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — the new version of the Workforce Investment Act.

The plans must include success measures, with results reported separately for groups with especially high barriers to employment, including ex-offenders.

And they’re to include provisions for career pathways, i.e., individualized sequences of work experience, education and/or training and other services that will qualify them for increasingly advanced positions in high-demand fields.

Looks like a goodly number of those pathways for ex-offenders could lead to “do not enter” signs states and the District have posted. They’d be well-advised to reassess them if they want fewer re-offenders.

 

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