Ban the box in Baltimore [Commentary]

Allowing people to delay disclosure of criminal records gives them a chance to make a case for employment

January 07, 2014|By Michael Pinard

For individuals with criminal records, the job application process often ends when they check the box on the application that requires them to disclose the existence of their records. For many employers, this is all they care to know about the applicant. They look no further than the box. If it is checked "yes," the application goes into the trash. As a result, individuals with criminal records are not afforded the chance to meet prospective employers, to shake their hands or look them in the eyes during an interview and explain why they are the right person for the job. The job seekers' hopes go no further than the application.

Several Baltimore City Council members have jointly introduced legislation that aims to expand employment opportunities for those with criminal records by requiring businesses that employ 10 or more individuals full-time in the city to remove the criminal-record disclosure box from their employment applications. Instead, criminal record inquiries would simply be delayed until such employers make a conditional offer of employment. At that point, the employer can determine whether or not the applicant has a criminal record and, if so, the applicant's suitability for the job in light of the record.

This bill is a significant step forward for individuals, families, communities and businesses in Baltimore. It is consistent with federal, state and local efforts across the United States to remove unnecessary and counterproductive barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records. Several studies demonstrate clearly that criminal records stand in the way of employment, regardless of the years or decades that pass and in spite of all the steps individuals have taken to become qualified for the positions sought. While criminal records reduce employment opportunities overall, they have a particularly damaging impact on employment prospects for African-Americans. African-American men with criminal records are effectively shut out of employment opportunities because of negative employer attitudes about African-American men generally and African-American men with criminal records specifically.

Ten states and more than 50 cities and counties across the United States have "banned the box" from employment applications. These jurisdictions recognize the necessity of creating pathways to employment for individuals with criminal records by allowing all applicants to be evaluated equally at the outset, based solely on their respective qualifications. Criminal records are relevant later in the application process, such as when the applicant has secured an interview or been deemed qualified for the position. At this point the employer has the full range of information — including the relationship or lack thereof between the criminal record and the job duties — necessary to make an informed hiring decision.

The majority of the jurisdictions that have banned the box have removed the box from public state, city or local job applications, including Baltimore City in 2007 and the State of Maryland in 2013. However, approximately a dozen cities have applied the ban to either private vendors or contractors doing business with the respective cities or to private businesses. Baltimore City has long been among the leading cities in the U.S. working to help individuals move past the various obstacles stemming from their criminal records. Removing the box from private businesses that conduct significant business in Baltimore would further the city's leadership in this regard and, more importantly, provide hope and opportunity for qualified individuals.

Employment stabilizes individuals, secures families and strengthens communities. Individuals with criminal records should be allowed to compete and secure the jobs for which they are qualified. Employers should also hire the most qualified individuals. Thus, the proposed legislation is good for individuals, good for businesses and good for Baltimore.

Michael Pinard is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and director of the Clinical Law Program. His email is mpinard@law.umaryland.

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