We should 'Ban the Box' and let ex-cons get to work

Posted: June 19, 2013

ONE OF MY workshops, "Choose to Change," encourages participants to figure out why they make bad financial choices.

We discuss the decisions that led them to their current situation. In a recent session, the participants were inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

During the presentation, one woman tearfully described how she sold drugs so she could buy brand-name clothes, shoes and other items for herself and her children. She was trying to make up for what she didn't have as a child.

"Now look at me," she said. "I'm in prison, wearing cheap flip-flops, and I don't have my freedom and any of the stuff I bought."

I was moved by how forthcoming the women were. Many had similar stories: They committed crimes to support a lifestyle they couldn't afford but thought they were entitled to. Their testimonies weren't about offering excuses. They owned up to their mistakes and the damage they had done. They were eager to learn strategies to make better choices.

I regularly volunteer to conduct personal-finance workshops for inmates. Most sessions are scheduled to help soon-to-be-released inmates. I try to prepare them for the financial pressures they will face. But it's hard counseling them on how to budget when we both know they'll face tough barriers to even finding a job.

That's why I'm particularly interested in lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against BMW and Dollar General, accusing them of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by using criminal-justice history information that had a disparate impact on black applicants.

The BMW case centers on employees who worked for UTi Integrated Logistics Inc., which provided services to BMW. UTi limits criminal-background checks to convictions within the previous seven years, according to EEOC. However, BMW has no time limit.

A new contractor took over from UTi and required employees to reapply. Workers who had convictions were fired, despite the fact that many had worked at the facility for years. One woman's ouster was based on a 1990 misdemeanor conviction for simple assault in which she paid a $137 fine, according to the EEOC's lawsuit. She had worked for UTi and prior logistics providers for 14 years.

In the Dollar General case, the EEOC says the company withdrew job offers from two black applicants as a result of background checks. In one case, the EEOC contends the information was wrong, and the other involved a 6-year-old conviction for possession of a controlled substance that had already been disclosed. Depending on the conviction, Dollar General might disqualify a candidate from working for 10 years, the EEOC said.

In statements, BMW and Dollar General deny any wrongdoing.

The National Employment Law Project estimates one in four adults has a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check. Last year, the EEOC issued guidelines cautioning about using conviction records that could result in discrimination.

When ex-offenders fill out applications, many have to check a box indicating they were convicted of a crime. That checked box has become a brand preventing them from getting jobs or even interviews. I'm an advocate for the growing "Ban the Box" movement.

Employers have a right to check the backgrounds of potential workers to ensure they are hiring competent employees who will not jeopardize the safety of their workers or customers. But having a job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. That woman I met at the workshop and so many others like her have a better chance of redeeming themselves if a checked box doesn't summarily block them from fairly competing for a job.

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