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Democrats urge Pres. Obama to expand job opportunities for ex-cons

May 12, 2015

A group of 27 Democratic senators joined a growing nationwide movement to "ban the box" on Tuesday, sending a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to take executive action to prohibit federal contractors and federal agencies from asking job candidates about their criminal records on job applications.

The senators said that the move would expand job opportunities for individuals with criminal records and reduce recidivism.

"[W]e ask you to require federal contractors and agencies to refrain from asking job applicants about prior convictions until later in the hiring process. This policy would eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment for all job seekers and would give individuals re-entering the workforce the opportunity to apply for work based on their current merits rather than past wrong-doings," the letter says. "Employers would retain the ability to inquire about past convictions or conduct background checks regarding a potential employee before making an employment decision."

The senators said that banning the box for federal agencies and contractors is in line with the administration's previously stated goals. In 2011, then Attorney General Eric Holder called for making the federal government a model employer. And the White House's My Brother's Keeper initiative—an effort to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color—endorses such "fair chance" reforms.

One hundred cities and counties have adopted fair chance policies, as have 16 states, with the governors of Vermont and Virginia signing executive orders to implement such rules this year. Six of those states have hiring laws that apply to private companies, in addition to public employers. Private employers have also acted independent of government regulations to remove criminal background checks from their job application processes. In late April, Koch Industries announced that it was doing so, following similar moves by Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot.

Apple came under fire earlier in April for a policy that banned workers with a felony conviction in the past seven years from working on the construction of the tech giant’s new spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino, California. The company later stopped the practice. “We recognize that this may have excluded some people who deserve a second chance,” the company said in a statement at the time.

The effort to keep questions about criminal history off of job applications comes during an era of mass incarceration—the U.S. prison population has increased by 400% since 1977. Asking candidates about their criminal background early on is thought to discriminate against the 70 million American adults with criminal records and to have a disproportionately negative effect on persons of color, who make up more than 60% of the country’s incarcerated population. The majority of employers rely on criminal background checks despite their potentially harmful effects: almost 7 out of 10 companies use them.

Tuesday's letter included signatures from Senators Cory Booker from New Jersey, Sherrod Brown from Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Chris Coons from Delaware, Dick Durbin from Illinois, Al Franken from Minnesota, Ed Markey from Massachusetts, Tim Kaine from Virginia, Jeff Merkley from Oregon, Patrick Leahy from Vermont, Mazie Hirono from Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin, Ron Wyden from Oregon, Mark Warner from Virginia, Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, Patty Murray from Washington, Tom Udall from New Mexico, Tom Carper from Delaware, Ben Cardin from Maryland, Jack Reed from Rhode Island, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, Amy Klobuchar Minnesota, Bernie Sanders Vermont, and Brian Schatz from Hawaii.

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