Now Employers Can't Ask You If You've Been Convicted of a Crime
A new law no longer requires a convicted felon fess up
Gregory B. Hladky
July 08, 2010
Dawayne Flemming went to prison in 2002 on a narcotics possession charge, served his sentence and insists he wants to live an honest life. The problem is, Flemming says, he’s still being punished, trapped inside a tiny box that appears on every job application he fills out.
Beside that little square is the grim question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
“I’m having so much of a hard time finding a job because of my criminal background,” Flemming says. “They don’t tell me that out-right, but I’m sure that’s what it is.”
The state of Connecticut, where more than 6,000 people are released from prison each year, is about to embark on an experiment that may give those ex-convicts a better chance at finding work and avoiding a return to a life behind bars.
Lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit public agencies in Connecticut from including that little box on initial employment applications, and to make it more difficult for a job candidate to be rejected solely on the basis of his or her felony record.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislation, arguing there is already a Connecticut law that prevents rejection of a job candidate based only on a conviction. She warned eliminating the felony question from initial state applications could cause serious problems for state officials trying to hire people for potentially sensitive positions.
The General Assembly didn’t agree and late last month voted to override her veto. The new “Ban the Box” law will take effect on Oct. 1, making Connecticut the fourth state in the nation to adopt the concept. The law doesn’t apply to private employers, but supporters of the legislation say the fact the state is taking this approach may make it easier for companies to hire people with criminal records.
“Our hope is that, as public agencies take steps to eliminate these barriers ... that private employers will also open their employment practices up to at least consider people with felony convictions,” says Nicole Porter, a spokeswoman for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
The reason so many reformers want to “Ban the Box” is that so many people in the United States are going into and then getting out of prison.
Nationally, there were more than 2.3 million people in prison or jail in 2008, according to The Sentencing Project, with an estimated 7.2 million under some sort of criminal justice supervision.
Porter says that state statistics show nearly 80,000 people in Connecticut were in prison, on probation or under parole supervision in 2008. State legislative researchers estimated a few years ago that more than 200,000 in this state had felony records, says LaResse Harvey, policy director for criminal justice reform group called A Better Way Connecticut.
The difficulty is finding ways to keep all those folks from going back in, and Harvey says a job is one of the most critical things that can keep a former inmate from returning to prison.
“It’s also a critical factor for public safety,” she adds. “A person with a job is not out there getting involved in crime just to sustain a family or his or her own livelihood.”
Four Connecticut cities have adopted similar local ordinances. Norwich was the first, followed by New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. The latter three now also prohibit city vendors and contractors from asking about criminal records on initial employment applications.
One of Rell’s key arguments in her veto message was that Connecticut already has a law preventing employers from denying a person work solely because of a prior felony conviction. You’d think that would take care of the problem.
But Harvey says that little box on initial job applications means that “companies and the state have been able to get around that law” because, when someone indicates they have a criminal record, an employer can simply throw the application out without any explanation.
As of Oct. 1, state hiring officials won’t be able to ask the felony question unless they have decided the applicant is qualified and they call him or her in for an interview. If they then reject the person because of a criminal record, they will have to supply a written explanation of why.
“If you get to that first interview, they [applicants with felony records] feel they have a legitimate chance to get the job,” says state Rep. Douglas McCrory, a Hartford Democrat and one of the new law’s sponsors. He argues that state officials who feel a person is qualified enough to interview them “would be hard pressed to say no” just because of an old felony conviction.
Harvey says the law doesn’t mean violent killers will be able to get jobs as state cops or swindlers positions as state auditors because the new law does allow for consideration of the nature of the crime and the nature of the job being sought.
“If you’re an embezzler, you can’t go and get a job at the state treasury,” says Harvey.
At a time when the recession is making it more and more difficult to find work, this job could be a life saver for people like Dawayne Flemming. He says he was laid off from his job with an environmental contractor in April of last year and has been looking ever since.
Come Oct. 1, Flemming believes this new law will “definitely give me a better chance” of finally finding work.