Question #1: Should ex-convicts be forced to answer questions about their criminal backgrounds when seeking employment?
Question #2: Do prospective employers have a right to know about the criminal history of applicants?
These two questions present an obvious contradiction. You either support an applicant’s right to privacy. Or, you support the employer’s right to know who they’re hiring. You can’t be in favor of both.
Legislation which would prohibit asking questions about criminal histories has been proposed in several states, including here in Nevada. What’s known as the “Ban the Box” law means making it illegal to ask questions about criminal history on employment applications. Some of these proposed bans apply only to government-related employment, including states and localities. Other bans are far more comprehensive and would impact employers hiring workers in both the public and private sectors.
Compelling arguments can be made on both sides of this debate. That’s what makes this controversial issue so problematic. There are no easy answers.
See if you agree:
THE CASE FOR “BAN THE BOX”
“Ban the Box” supporters point out that ex-convicts have paid their debts to society. They shouldn’t be stigmatized by prior criminal history, which (when disclosed) makes it far more difficult for them to re-enter society as working citizens.
Fact is, ex-convicts face paralyzing levels of discrimination in virtually all areas of daily life — including housing, finance, child custody, and even in developing personal relationships. This is especially true for employment, as well, which is often the most important single factor in determining what happens to ex-convicts after they’re released.
Consider the following: When two applicants are up for the same job, and one is an ex-convict, the applicant with the clean criminal record is almost certain to get selected. Repeated failure and disappointment at securing steady work means ex-convicts have far fewer options to make a decent living. Hence, some of them return to their old ways and go back to a life of crime. That’s not good for them. It’s also not good for society.
We should all try to empathize with ex-convicts who honestly want to turn their lives around. I think they deserve our support. They face enough obstacles already during various stages of rehabilitation without the added hardship of not being able to get a good job.
The consequences of discrimination against ex-convicts isn’t just personal. Society, at large, is also adversely effected. If employers screen out ex-convicts based on their pasts, this creates a large group of both unemployed and under-employed, especially among younger men. Since the United States imprisons far more of its citizens than any nation in the world (many for abstruse drug offenses), the numbers here are quite significant, even reaching into the millions. It’s also one of many contributing factors towards inner-city squalor and decay, with a devastating impact on minority communities which already suffer disproportional levels of discrimination.
Of course, “Ban the Box” laws will not solve all the problems that ex-convicts face, nor magically the lift the poorest communities out of poverty. However, this law would help quite a large number of people, many with good intentions who desperately want to turn their lives around and become a productive part of society.
Everyone who applies for a job deserves a fair chance.
THE CASE AGAINST “BAN THE BOX”
Employers have rights, too. Employers are entitled to know exactly who they’re hiring, especially for jobs involving trust and public safety. Ex-convicts have already demonstrated some degree of personal failure when it comes to issues of trust and public safety. Prospective employers are entitled to know about those deficiencies.
Opponents of “Ban the Box” laws point out that workplaces are not cross-cultural laboratories for social experimentation. Employers shouldn’t be forced to take all the risks, nor bear the occasional burden of an ex-criminal who continues committing illegal acts after serving time and being released back into society.
Indeed, if the actions of an ex-convict who committed a terrible crime in the past aren’t known to the employer in advance, there’s a chance that person might do bad things that will harm the company and endanger other employees.
“Ban the Box” laws don’t necessarily restrict hiring practices. Some ex-convicts who apply for jobs might make such a positive impression that they get hired anyway, and eventually become outstanding employees and good citizens. However, employers should be able ask questions related to criminal records in advance and conduct background checks to find out this information.
There are already plenty of laws on the books which prohibit many types of discrimination in employment based on age, race, and gender. Most agree that those are rights which should be protected. Government has an obligation to make ensure to the best of its ability that all citizens receive fair employment opportunities.
However, once someone commits a crime and gets convicted in a court of law, the same rights to privacy should not apply equally to everyone. Citizens with clean criminal records are entitled to the presumed advantages of good behavior in future employment over ex-convicts who have made bad decisions in the past.
Employers have a right to know who they may be hiring.
So, what’s your opinion? Should we support “Ban the Box” laws which make it easier for ex-cons to fit back into society? Or, should employers be allowed to ask questions about the past criminal convictions of applicants?
If you were a state legislator, how would you vote?
Permit me to offer the following opinions:
(1) The notion of restricting access to information is very troublesome. Prohibiting what seems to be perfectly normal questions about an applicant’s background contradicts the fundamentals of honesty and transparency. However….
(2) Society would be much better off with “Ban the Box” laws. Many ex-convicts who otherwise would be summarily rejected for employment would enjoy far greater opportunities. Accordingly we would all benefit from ex-convicts returning productively to the workforce, since there’s less a chance for recidivism. That means less crime, less strain on the overworked judicial system, less prisons, and better workers. It also means more opportunities for ex-convicts living in inner cities, resulting in some measure of economic growth and greater family cohesion.
(3) The chances of “Ban the Box” legislation passing in many states is slim to none. Elected officials don’t want look “soft on crime.” Hence, such laws present a political conundrum. Many elected officials who oppose government intrusion on business and who also fear repercussions at the ballot box, might agree in private that the positives of “Ban the Box” laws outweigh the bad. However nowadays, political courage is exceedingly rare.