Lawmakers seek to ban the box at federal government

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to prohibit federal agencies and contractors from asking job applicants about their criminal histories at the early stages of the hiring process.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore joined with Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate this month to introduce a bill to "ban the box" on federal job applications, allowing ex-offenders to be considered for jobs before they are required to acknowledge a criminal record.


The measure comes amid emerging bipartisan momentum in Congress for changes to the criminal justice system, some of which are to be included in a sweeping bill lawmakers are set to debate later this year. Proponents say ex-offenders face discrimination from employers when they are forced to disclose past crimes.

"Once you get that criminal history, it's like a life sentence," said Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the federal workforce.


"If it's going to happen," Cummings said of the bill, "it needs to happen right now."

Republican Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the former chairman of the oversight committee and a supporter of the measure, predicted it will pass both chambers of Congress with relative ease. Eighteen states, including Maryland, already have passed some form of legislation to address the issue.

Issa said he and Cummings agreed fully on the effort, despite their often-contentious relationship.

"The vast majority of people who have to check the box have never been in prison," he said. "A job is something that keeps people from going back into crime, if that's their goal."

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Maryland approved a similar law in 2013 that applies to state government jobs. Efforts by state lawmakers to expand the prohibition to the private sector have failed. Last year, Baltimore banned private employers from asking about an applicant's record until after an interview.

The congressional legislation, the Fair Chance Act, would prohibit federal agencies and contractors from asking applicants about criminal history until after making a conditional offer of employment. The bill makes exceptions for positions in which criminal background checks are required by law and "sensitive positions," such as those dealing with classified information.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management declined to comment on the proposal, citing a general rule against speaking about pending legislation.

Sen. Cory Booker called the legislation "a reflection of a growing movement.


"When someone has paid their debt to society," the New Jersey Democrat said, "we should be empowering them to rejoin society."