New York City’s Ambitious Ban-The-Box Law Is Already Transforming Lives

CREDIT: BRYCE COVERT
CREDIT: BRYCE COVERT

Marilyn Scales paid her debt to society. But it still dragged her down for decades.

The petite 50-something mother of six and grandmother of seven with piercing blue eyes and dyed blond hair spent two years in prison on a felony conviction for selling drugs back in 1995. When she was released, she vowed to start anew. She quit drugs and hasn’t even gotten so much as a traffic ticket since then. And she immediately began applying for jobs so she could provide for her children and gain some independence. “I thought, you know, my life would just kick off like that,” she said in her thick Bronx accent.

Marilyn Scales
Marilyn Scales

But she was frozen in time, unable to move away from the mistakes she made 20 years ago. She applied to any jobs she could find, from retail to restaurants, but none of them would call her back. “Other people in my neighborhood are applying for jobs and they’re getting them, and I’m not getting them,” she recounted. “I said you know what, it’s probably my criminal record.”

All of the job application forms included one simple question that stood in her way: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? She had to check yes, but she came to realize that doing so immediately discounted any other qualifications she brought to the table. Sometimes she would see that box and wouldn’t even bother to fill out the whole form. “I was discouraged,” she said. “Trying to get my life on track seemed impossible. It made me depressed.”

Worse, it kept her trapped in a marriage she dreamed of escaping. “I stayed in a marriage where I wasn’t happy because I didn’t know how to support myself,” she said. Eventually she couldn’t take it and left her husband, but she traded marital challenges for financial ones. “I couldn’t really afford nothing,” she said. Sometimes she got by babysitting the children of families in her neighborhood. Sometimes she was able to piece together part-time work. None of it was ever quite enough to live on.

“I was a 52-year-old woman who had never experienced having a full-time job,” she said, her voice thick with sadness and her eyes teary. “Why can’t I get a fair chance? Everybody makes mistakes.”

Scales eventually got involved with Vocal NY, a group that was behind the recent passage of New York City’s Fair Chance Act. The legislation is what Nayantara Mehta, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), calls the strongest so-called “ban the box” legislation in the country. “It’s almost the best you could ask for,” she said.

On a recent chilly spring evening, she, Scales, and a number of other advocates and people with criminal histories gathered in the offices of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to hear about the details of the law, swap stories, and figure out how to spread awareness.

Mehta pointed out that 23 states have passed ban the box laws, and President Obama even signed an executive order requiring federal employers to ban the box in the early stages of the application and hiring process. A number of large corporations have also pledged to get rid of the preliminary questions. Yet she told the gathered audience that “none of them go far enough.”

Trying to get my life on track seemed impossible.

New York City’s new law, by contrast, “wasn’t called ban the box for a reason,” as Judy Whiting, general counsel at the Community Service Society of New York put it. It does in fact ban employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories in all initial applications, including job ads and application forms. But it also keeps employers from doing a background check until they make any conditional job offers so that applicants are evaluated on their merits. At that point, an employer has likely decided that it is sure it wants to hire an employee.

And even background checks come with certain parameters: if an applicant has a conviction history that gets turned up in a background check, it triggers the beginning of the Fair Chance Process, which requires an employer to evaluate whether the conviction is in fact directly related to the job as well as take into account any documentation of rehabilitation. If an employer still has concerns that the applicant’s history isn’t suitable for the job, it must notify the applicant and give him at least three business days to respond by explaining or correcting the background check information. Sometimes, for example, a background check could have been done on the wrong person with a similar name.

There are still issues with compliance around the law. Some employers may not realize that it went into effect last October, while others may not have caught up yet. Some may be blatantly disregarding it. The city’s Commission on Human Rights has staffed up and is doing community outreach to get the word out to both employers and potential job applicants in an effort to bring the intent of the law into reality. The commission has already opened 153 investigations based on complaints and its own investigations. Vocal NY and NELP are also conducting their own trainings with employers and lawyers.

But the law has already had an immediate impact for many New Yorkers. Scales is among them. Soon after the law went into effect, she secured her first full-time job doing case management. “They gave me a chance,” she said, a smile stretching across her face. “I started feeling good about myself, it built up my self-esteem… Being able to feel like you’re worthy, you’re doing something.”

And though her financial struggles haven’t totally disappeared, she’s finally on solid footing. “I’m making it,” she said. “I’m able to pay my rent, pay my bills. Even though I just make it, that was the first time in a long time I could say that.”

Andre Centano
Andre Centano

Andre Centano is another New Yorker whose life changed after the Fair Chance Act. Wearing khakis, glasses, and a close-cropped goatee, the only hint of the “stuff” he says he got into growing up in Brooklyn are the tattoos that peek out from his sleeves. Centano went to prison at the age of 17 and didn’t get out until he was 33. But he didn’t sit around while he was inside. He decided he wanted to go into social services, a decision he calls a “no brainer” because he could help people dealing with the same issues he had faced down in his own life. He earned both a GED and a Bachelor’s degree, qualifications he added to once he was released by getting a Masters from Adelphi University and a certification from the University of Connecticut in family and development.

All of those achievements couldn’t shield him from the reach of the ever-persistent box, though. “When I came home I was filling out applications and worrying about the box more than my qualifications for the job,” he said. “Here I was in interviews having to discuss what I did, as opposed to what I can do.” The questions followed him around even after he finished his parole.

“I would be in a room with people that I knew I was better qualified than, and still that box prevented me from doing a whole lot,” he remembered. He was able to get some work, but none of it paid well and it was all far below the qualifications he had earned.

That changed after the Fair Chance Act. He interviewed for a new job in January working to help place the homeless in stable housing, and his past “wasn’t even part of the questioning,” he said. The application didn’t have a box to check. He got the position. “I can expand my horizon for jobs that I can apply for and not have to worry about having them ask that question of me anymore,” he explained.

There’s still plenty of work to be done. New York City’s law is unique in going so far to protect the formerly incarcerated, who face steep odds when trying to get jobs and stay stable after they’re released. As of 2014, nearly 90 percent of employers asked job applicants about their criminal histories. Meanwhile, between 60 and 75 percent of former inmates say they can’t find work within the first year of their release, while many are also barred from receiving public benefits. That leaves them with few options for financial stability.

Centano has seen the “snowball” effect of what getting a job can do for someone out of prison. “When you allow somebody to become self-sufficient, that’s one less person that’s possibly going to commit a crime,” he said. And it also ripples outward. He noted that in his own family, his ability to work has laid the ground for his sons’ success, one of whom just started college and the other who is a talented enough athlete that he might get a scholarship to play sports. “They don’t know what the inside of a cop car looks like,” he said.

But he knows tons of people who have been in the very same boat as him. “I could fill this room up three times over with individuals that have been incarcerated, that have advanced degrees, and today have not seen the inside of a prison since they came out,” he said. “But it’s been a struggle for them.”

Scales got deeply involved in the effort to pass the Fair Chance Act to end not just her own struggles, but the struggles of others. The day the bill was signed was momentous for her, and she got to attend the ceremony. “Like my kids’ ages, I never forget that date,” she said.

She’s always maintained that the law just makes sense. “You should be given a fair chance. Your quality of work is what counts, it’s not your past,” she said. “Because I’m not my past. That was 20 years ago.”This post has been updated to accurately reflect the number of current investigations by the New York City Commission on Human Rights.