California Gives Break to Job Seekers With Criminal Past

California, with the most state and local government employees in the U.S., won’t ask job applicants if they’ve been convicted of a crime, in recognition that growing numbers in the workforce have such records.

A bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown requires that state and municipal governments first determine if an applicant is qualified for the job before asking if he or she has a criminal past. It doesn’t stop the agency from doing so later nor does it prohibit background checks before hiring.

California’s law was a victory for civil-rights groups and advocates for ex-offenders to lower employment barriers nationwide. An estimated 1-in-4 adult Californians has an arrest or conviction record, according to the bill’s author, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat. Advocates say the criminal history question has a chilling effect at a time when U.S. unemployment tops 7 percent and 65 million Americans have spent time behind bars.

“The problem of people with criminal records is at a critical point,” said Michelle Rodriguez, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers. “We have huge numbers of people who can’t get work and at the same time more and more people who have gone through the criminal justice system.”

The campaign to remove the question from job applications, known as “Ban the Box,” has been growing since Hawaii first took the step 15 years ago. It gained strength in other states after the longest recession since the 1930s sent unemployment to the highest in almost three decades.

New Jersey Bill

New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit all employers, not just government, from asking the question on job applications. It has run into opposition from the State Chamber of Commerce, which says it could open employers to lawsuits from disgruntled applicants. Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, hasn’t expressed his position.

In May, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, signed a law requiring private employers to wait until a prospective employee’s first personal interview before asking about criminal records. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, signed a similar bill in July.

Including California, 10 states have Ban the Box policies or laws in place for government hiring, according to the National Employment Law Project. Proponents say the proliferation of commercial background checks by U.S. companies since the Sept. 11 terror attacks has made it more difficult for Americans who have served time behind bars to find work.

Employer Rejections

Prospective employers tend to reject job seekers if they check a box on a form saying they’ve been convicted of a crime, without ever giving applicants a chance to prove they might be worth considering, Rodriguez said.

“Employment is huge for these people,” she said. “If you can’t get a job, how are you supposed to support your family? How are you supposed to have any kind of opportunity in the community.”

California hasn’t included a box asking about convictions on state job applications since 2010, under an executive order by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bill signed by Brown makes that policy a law and extends it to more than 6,000 local governments. Several cities and counties in the state, including Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, San Diego and San Francisco already prohibit it.

Background Check

The law also requires state and local agencies to delay a background check until they determine that the applicant’s qualifications meet the job requirements. It exempts jobs in criminal justice or those where a criminal background check is required by law.

The California law comes on the heels of Brown’s policy to shift thousands of low level non-violent criminals out of state prisons into local custody to reduce crowding. Local agencies are also where rehabilitation programs work to reduce recidivism.

“Making sure that people who have been convicted of a crime can come back into society and work productively and pay restitution is all in the interest of the victim,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, in Washington.

The League of California Cities opposed the bill saying cities should be allowed to request criminal history information in the initial phase of hiring for someone handling money, sensitive information or required to enter private property without notice to the owner.

Critics such as the cities group also argued that local agencies will end up wasting time and limited resources screening initial applicants for minimum eligibility even though those with a conviction will be rejected once an applicant’s criminal history is disclosed.

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