Every year, a staggering 650,000 Americans return to their families and society after serving out criminal sentences. For most, the hardest task they face is finding work — an essential component to both rebuilding their lives and keeping them from encountering the criminal justice system again. But even in the most heavily incarcerated nation in the world, a prior record carries a stigma.
It is a deterrent to many employers who would otherwise hire fully-qualified job candidates; many people with records often don’t get the look they deserve because they are forced to check a box that requires disclosure of a criminal background, which disqualifies them before their job applications are even reviewed. This barrier to employment now impacts one in three American adults.
The late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings fought to remove this barrier during his time in Congress by sponsoring the the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act, or the Fair Chance Act. And just months after his death, the passage of this second chance employment bill is his legacy.
In a rare bipartisan move — one that represents a seismic shift in the federal government’s hiring practices — Congress voted overwhelmingly to implement fair chance hiring for most federal government and contractor jobs, which will delay inquiry into a job applicant’s criminal history until after that person has an opportunity to interview for a position.
The impact of this bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Chairman Cummings, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), is monumental. It opens up tens of thousands of federal government and contractor jobs to the more than 70 million Americans with some criminal background. Under current law, federal applicants are required to disclose their criminal history when they submit their application, effectively barring them from a wide breadth of federal jobs. Once President Donald Trump signs the legislation into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, applicants will not have to disclose that information until a conditional offer of employment is made.
This “ban the box” policy is hardly groundbreaking: 35 states and more than 150 counties and cities have implemented fair chance hiring for government jobs, including Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Maryland banned the box in 2013, and the City of Baltimore implemented the policy a year later and extended it to any employer with the equivalent of 10 or more full-time employees.
In states where private employers are not required to implement fair chance hiring policies, many companies, large and small, have done so voluntarily. Target, the Coca-Cola Company, Walmart, and JPMorgan Chase have been leaders in this endeavor. In addition, JPMorgan Chase has piloted a collaboration with community organizations in Chicago and other cities to help broaden its talent pool. In 2018, about 10% of the firm’s new hires had a criminal background.
Ban the box is sound economic policy, as it expands the availability of skilled labor when there is a shortage of workers to help fill in-demand jobs across the country. As recently as October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 7 million job openings. Meanwhile, the November unemployment statistics from the department puts the number of people out of work at 5.9 million.
Fair chance hiring is also good for public safety. Right now, almost 60% to 75% people remain unemployed a year after being released from incarceration. Steady employment is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism: In one study, people who secured employment shortly after release had dramatically lower recidivism rates than the state average.
By passing the Fair Chance Act, the federal government sets an example for more private entities to follow. While people impacted by the U.S. justice system won’t be right for every job, this is an important step toward ensuring the opportunity to find the right job is there for everyone, including those with criminal backgrounds.
When this legislation is signed into law, Baltimore should be especially proud. For not only was it a leader in fair chance hiring, it’s late, great Rep. Cummings spearheaded the national movement. By passing his bipartisan Fair Chance Act, Congress forever honors his legacy.