Pa. governor hopes banning the box helps ex-offenders find jobs

The order will not preclude the state from running background checks on prospective employees and asking questions about their pasts during the interview process


By Karen Shuey
Reading Eagle

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf wants to give people with criminal records a "fair chance" when pursuing a job in state government.

And he's issuing an executive order to do it.

Wolf announced this month that applicants for some state government positions will not have to fill out a criminal conviction box on job applications. But, he stressed, the order will not preclude the state from running background checks on prospective employees and asking questions about their pasts during the interview process.

The governor said the move will allow prospective applicants with records to be judged on their skills and not solely on their criminal history.

"We have a robust system of supervision and rehabilitative services that gives reentrants to the community all the tools they need to put their lives back on track, get the skills they need to get a job and get moving again," he said during a recent visit to a drug recovery facility in Philadelphia. "But, too often, one small check mark can jeopardize the future that we all need them to pursue and reach."

The measure goes into effect July 1 and would impact hiring in nearly 70,000 state jobs within the executive branch, with a number of exceptions, including for law enforcement positions or those involving contact with vulnerable populations.

Momentum for "ban the box" legislation has grown exponentially in recent years.

Pennsylvania will join 26 states and more than 150 cities and counties across the country that now have ban-the-box laws in place, according to the National Employment Law Project. Reading is one of those cities.

Nine states - Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont - also have removed the conviction history question on job applications for private employers.

Berks Connections, a nonprofit organization that provides reentry programming for those who have served their prison sentence, supports the initiative. Peggy Kershner, deputy director of the group, said she believes banning the box would greatly reduce employment discrimination against people with criminal records and alleviate the socioeconomic burdens they often face as they transition back into the job market.

"I think this would really help our clients get their foot in the door," Kershner said. "Getting rid of the box may level the playing field a little more when it comes to first impressions. Having a criminal record is still going to come up in the hiring process, but it would no longer be the first thing an employer notices about someone applying for a job."

Kershner said making a small change to boost the employment chances of reentrants should have broad support.

"A very small percentage of offenders will be behind bars forever," she said. "These folks are coming back into our communities, and the expectation is that they will contribute back to society. How can they accomplish that if no one is willing to give them a second chance?"

But not everyone thinks the ban-the-box policy is delivering the second chance it promised.

Several recent studies found that banning the box actually hurt the chances of those it is intended to help by increasing discrimination against black and Latino job applicants whom employers may assume are more likely to have a criminal record.

In one study, written by Amanda Y. Agan of Princeton University and Sonja B. Starr of the University of Michigan Law School, researchers submitted about 15,000 fictitious online job applications in New York City and New Jersey before and after their ban-the-box laws took effect. They found that a 7 percent gap in callbacks between white and black applicants grew to 45 percent once employers could no longer ask about conviction history on applications.

State Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said last week in an email that he's aware of the research and believes in the validity of the findings that, if not properly monitored, banning the box can have a negative effect on employment for minorities.

However, he added, he's confident that the proper baselining measures will be in place under Wolf's proposal. Wetzel said the initiative for those seeking employment by the commonwealth will significantly expand opportunities for those seeking jobs after incarceration.

"Roughly 20,000 individuals leave Pennsylvania prisons each year," he said. "Employment remains one of the biggest hurdles facing them when they return to the community. Lifting this barrier to state employment will greatly help lift the chance for their success."

©2017 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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