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Ban The Box

Posted: 03.14.2017

Betty Ann Sheats“Getting rid of the simple phrase, ‘Check the box if you have a criminal record,’ gives people a chance to get their foot in the door as they work to turn their lives around,” said Rep. Bettyann Sheats, who is pushing the measure.

The “ban the box” movement has been picking up steam nationwide for years as a key step to help former inmates turn their lives around. Half of the states have stopped asking about past criminal records on application forms and many have also barred private employers from doing so, including four New England states.

They still allow employers to ask about someone's criminal past later in the hiring process.

One former prisoner, Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, told lawmakers Wednesday that “the challenges to find employment are real” for released inmates, who are given $50, minus the cost of a bus ticket, on their way out the door.

“The stigma of being a convicted felon is real," Jackson said. "When Maine citizens are convicted of crimes, they wear those crimes for life. A man convicted of any crime in his 20s must carry those crimes like a weighted satchel on his back into his retirement age.”

Many studies have found that securing a job is the best way to keep someone from returning to a life of crime. Having to admit on an employment form to having a criminal record often blocks the opportunity for a former convict to explain the circumstances and make a case for his reform, experts say, making the requirement a chief obstacle to obtaining employment.

Her bill “would allow past offenders to be judged on their merits and skills before being immediately discarded because of past criminal records,” Sheats told the Committee on State and Local Government.

The flip side, though, is that there are “countless examples of where an employee’s criminal history would be relevant,” said Nina Fisher, director of Government Relations for the Maine Community College System.

Fisher pointed out that many positions require working with children, students and finances.

“Enacting legislation would not simply waive away our concerns about hiring people with criminal records,” she said. “By requiring the disclosure as a part of our employment practices, our staff is able to form an honest and complete assessment with a potential employee and will oftentimes go further, and have a meaningful conversation with them.”

Fisher said Maine’s community colleges “do employ people who have prior convictions, provided that the conviction does not impact their ability to perform their job to the best of their ability.”

But advocates said they’re not barring employers from asking about criminal convictions. They’re simply shifting the moment when that happens from the application to the interviews that might follow, perhaps giving someone a chance he or she wouldn’t otherwise have.

Mary Anne Turowski, director of politics and legislation for the Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989, said dropping the question from employment applications will encourage more people to apply and help the state cast a wider net in its search for good workers.

“State government can only gain by broadening their pool of applicants, simply by eliminating this one question,” she said.

The legislative and political director of the Maine AFL-CIO, Adam Goode, said the measure would “ensure that people applying for jobs in state government have their qualifications considered first, without the stigma of a criminal record.”

Jackson asked legislators to adopt instead another bill, not yet available, that would bar the conviction question from public and private employment applications, a step that some states and a number of major companies have taken.

Jackson said that “as a returning citizen, I know firsthand the unspoken punishments of prison,” especially the reality that most of those incarcerated “lose everything” following conviction: “clothing, housing, transportation, employment, savings and oftentimes significant others.”

“We exit prison with the stigma of being convicted felons, our lives in shambles, facing a world we barely recognize,” Jackson said.

“Our return to Maine communities is fraught with uncertainty, as many of us must face the enormous challenge of trying to rebuild and restore some semblance of order to our lives, oftentimes with nothing more than the few personal possessions we carry in clear plastic trash bags,” he said.

A decade ago, the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission said it had identified criminal record exclusions as “one of the employment barriers that are linked to race and color discrimination in the workplace.” Five years ago, it urged employers to stop asking about criminal backgrounds.

Sheats said many Mainers “know that sinking feeling that comes from submitting resume after resume and never getting a call back; trying as hard as you can to find a good-paying job to support yourself and your family, without luck. And for Mainers with a criminal record, that devastating cycle can last years.”

Giving former inmates a better shot, she said, is a “simple change” that “could have long-lasting positive impacts on broadening Maine’s workforce, supporting lagging businesses and reintegrating past contributors into our economy.”

“For example, Maine continues to face a shortage of snowplow drivers in state agencies," Sheats said. "While driving records are relevant for that skill set, other past records are not.

“Someone with a past conviction stemming from shoplifting who has served their time and debt to society might make a great snowplow driver if they were given the chance,” she said.

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