Baltimore Bill Would Ease The Path From Ex-Offender To Employed Worker

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A proposed bill in Baltimore would ban employers from looking into an applicant’s criminal history until later in the hiring process in the hopes of making it easier for ex-offenders to get jobs.

The bill proposed by City Councilman Nick Mosby (D) would prohibit employers from asking about criminal records or doing a background check until a potential employee has the chance to interview or receives a conditional job offer. It expands a city law implemented in 2007 that “banned the box” on applications asking about an applicant’s criminal history for government jobs and would apply to all private companies with 10 or more workers, including temp, contract, and seasonal workers. A hearing on the bill hasn’t been scheduled yet. Another bill that would exclude some minor and nonviolent convictions from background checks died this year but lawmakers say they will reintroduce it when the Assembly returns in January.

Mosby says he sponsored the legislation after getting calls from former convicts struggling to get work. “I can’t tell you how many folks call me in need of jobs that have gone through the criminal justice system,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “When you serve your time, you should be able to assimilate.”

Some business opponents, such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, argue that the bill would mean extra costs and time spent on applicants who end up not being right for the job. But other businesses have taken a different stance. In October, Target announced that it will voluntarily stop asking job applicants about their criminal records on their applications, instead waiting until after it gives them provisional job offers.

Target joined the “ban the box” movement, which is seeking to eliminate the question about criminal histories on most job applications. Baltimore is one of many cities that have taken their own steps as part of the effort to ease the path to employment for people with criminal records: more than 50 local jurisdictions, mostly cities, have banned the box in 22 different states. But statewide bans are less common. Only 10 states and Washington, D.C. have these laws, although some are taking steps in that direction, such as Michigan and California. Meanwhile, only Philadelphia and Newark, DE have broad restrictions on when private companies can ask about criminal histories along the lines of Baltimore’s proposed legislation.

Nationally, 90 percent of employers use criminal background checks in the hiring process and between 60 and 75 percent of people with a criminal past say they struggle to find a job for up to a year after they’re released. Yet one in four Americans has a criminal record. This combination means that two million workers are shut out of the workforce each year thanks to a felony conviction or prison record.

Questions about prior felony convictions can also crop up in applications for housing, loans, insurance, and public benefits. Given all of these barriers to getting back on one’s feet financially — a record can prevent someone from getting a job, an apartment, and even food stamps — it may be little wonder that about 40 percent of people who go to prison return within three years of their release.