A growing movement to protect convicted job applicants

January 14, 2014, 5:13 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Samantha Rogers readily acknowledges her past drug problem. “If I had a rap sheet to email you, you’d see all the repeated offenses,” she told Fortune. Back when possession of all controlled substances was a felony, her frequent court appearances landed her in jail again and again over the course of 17 years.

When she got out for good in 2010, things didn’t get much easier.

She was rejected for jobs she applied to — she thinks — because the applications asked her to disclose her criminal past. Finding affordable housing — with its similar paperwork — is just as difficult for former felons. “The hardest thing for all of us is finding a safe environment and housing so we can channel our energy into going back to school and getting a job,” says Rogers, 46, who’s now back in school and works part-time in the San Francisco area as a program assistant for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Formerly incarcerated individuals like Rogers soon could have an easier time finding employment and a place to live in San Fransisco if a recently proposed ordinance is approved. San Francisco currently prohibits city agencies from using job applications that inquire about an individual’s criminal history. The new proposal would extend that ban to private employers, publicly funded housing providers, and city contractors, and would keep businesses from asking job candidates about their criminal backgrounds until after a live interview.

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“Incarceration is bad enough,” says Jesse Stout, policy director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Once people are released from prison, he says, they deserve “the basic right to the housing and employment that many of us take for granted.”

The San Francisco measure, dubbed the Fair Chance ordinance, is one of the latest efforts in a nationwide movement to “Ban the Box” — the little square on applications that, when ticked, acknowledges individuals’ criminal histories and often disqualifies them for a job or housing on the spot. Since 9/11, and with the increased accessibility of criminal records online, hiring background checks have been on the rise, says National Employment Law Project attorney Michelle Rodriguez, but so too have efforts to limit them.

In addition to San Francisco, Louisville, Ky. is considering a similar Ban the Box ordinance. The city, where 160,000 people in the metro area of 800,000 have a criminal background, already refrains from asking about a person’s record early in its own hiring processes, but the ordinance would codify that rule and extend it to city vendors and contractors.

And in Indianapolis, city councilman Vop Osili plans to introduce a “Ban the Box” initiative on Jan. 27 that would prohibit the city and its vendors from asking about job candidates’ criminal backgrounds until after the first interview. Osili’s effort stems from a desire to cut down on the city’s prison recidivism rate, which hovers near 50%. “Every person coming out of jail has a one-in-two chance of going back within three years,” he says. If the ordinance passes, instead of costing taxpayers the $30,000 required to keep a person in jail for a year, a former felon could be contributing income and property taxes, Osili says.

At the state level, lawmakers in Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio recently introduced Ban the Box legislation too.

The prevalence of these initiatives has to do with “this understanding in our society [that] mass incarceration is broken,” says Rodriguez. According to an August 2013 report by NELP, an estimated 65 million Americans — or one in four adults — have a criminal record that would show up on a routine background check. “We need people to be able to work,” says Rodriguez. “It makes no sense to keep qualified people out of the labor market. There are already enough barriers [to getting a job] in place, and this takes the simplest one away and gives them a fair chance.”

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Hawaii became the first state to outlaw questions about a job applicants’ criminal background, when it passed a Ban the Box law that applied to public and private employment in 1998. Fifty-three cities and counties and 10 states have established some sort of Ban the Box measure since then. Last year alone, eight cities joined those ranks, as did five states, including Minnesota and Rhode Island, which applied the rule to private employers in addition to state agencies.

Businesses groups, meanwhile, have argued that the bans are too big of a burden. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, for instance, argued that the original version of the city’s most recent proposal, which prohibited background checks until after an individual received a conditional job offer, would have caused businesses to waste resources and time on candidates they ultimately could not hire. The Chamber and the ordinance’s sponsors ultimately reached a compromise — the ban on background checks would be lifted earlier in the hiring process, after the first interview.

The Chambers now supports the measure. “[The Chamber had] no issue with Ban the Box. The broader issue was the scope of the legislation and how it applies in the hiring process,” says Jim Lazarus, the Chamber’s senior vice president of public policy. “If possible, we want to give everyone a fair chance to be employed.”