Reframing Justice: Hiring the Best Candidate for the Job

Historically, when men and women with criminal records applied for jobs with the State of Illinois, they were asked on the initial employment application form if they had ever been convicted of a crime. If they answered “yes” or checked the “yes” box on the form, they were usually prescreened out of the general applicant pool and never truly considered for the position sought. No matter how educated, how qualified, or how much of an asset these individuals would be to our state, they were not considered, simply because they checked “yes” in response to a question regarding their conviction history. And even if the applicant survived that prescreening, qualified men and women seeking employment were still often rejected without consideration of factors like how long ago the case occurred, how serious the offense was, the circumstances surrounding the offense, and the relatedness of that offense to the job sought by the applicant. As a result, thousands of hardworking and law-abiding men and women in communities across the state were denied positions each day despite being qualified, arguably the best fit for the job, and presenting substantially no more of a risk to public safety than the general population who have not been convicted of mistakes made in their past.

Thankfully, as of October 3, 2013, that will no longer be the case. 

Governor Patrick Quinn issued an administrative order that requires agencies under his jurisdiction to assess state job applicants’ credentials before inquiring into their criminal records (a process often called “Banning the Box”), and then, if the applicant does have a criminal record, to consider common-sense things like the amount of time that has elapsed since the offense, the gravity of the offense, and the relationship of that offense to the job sought when determining the individual’s fitness for a particular position. In doing so, Governor Quinn dramatically changed the state’s hiring process to ensure that men and women with criminal records are not automatically—and unwisely—denied access to employment.  

The practice of Banning the Box has been thoroughly vetted by states and employers. Nationwide, Banning the Box has been implemented in more than 40 jurisdictions and nearly a dozen states. One such jurisdiction is the City of Chicago, which banned the box from its employment applications several years ago. Moreover, this practice was recommended by the Illinois Poverty Commission, the recently promulgated guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and, most recently, by the Illinois Employment Restrictions Task Force, which was charged with assessing the employment barriers that confront those who have made past mistakes to determine if there are less restrictive alternatives to these policies and statutes that would not unduly harm Illinoisans. 

Ban the Box policies are frequently misunderstood by the public, perhaps because the media does not present the whole picture. These policies do not give people with criminal records a total pass. Right now, qualified men and women with past mistakes are never given a shot to be hired; ban the box simply gives these men and women the chance to take care of themselves and their families that they have earned and deserve. Their criminal histories are weighed at the point in the hiring process where they have been found to be qualified for and a strong candidate for the job. Then employers weigh whether their criminal history makes them unsuitable because of the substantial risk they may pose to the public or their employees.  

Delaying employment-related criminal record inquiries gives job applicants the personal contact with an employer needed for them to mitigate or erase the negative stereotypes that an employer may hold regarding those with criminal records. In fact, employers who have this personal contact with applicants are shown to be more than four times more likely to call back applicants with criminal records.

Without question, this order will remove unnecessary barriers to employment for the nearly four million men and women in our state with criminal records. Doing so yields tangible benefits for not only the man or woman who made a mistake in their past; it benefits their children, their family, their community, improves public safety, and saves our state money. Nearly fifty percent of the men and women in our communities with criminal records will re-offend (called “recidivism”) within three years unless they are able to acquire stable employment. If they are fortunate enough to acquire employment, the recidivism rate falls to only 8%. Accordingly, the benefits of sound policy that allows men and women in our communities more opportunities to be self-sufficient and take care of their children and saves our state millions in criminal justice costs associated with recidivism are clear. Just as important, waiting to inquire into a man or woman’s criminal record helps applicants avoid the indignity of being rejected from a job after job without ever getting a shot because of the stigma associated with those who made past mistakes. It also rewards those who work hard to overcome that stigma and rejection by pursuing further education, having no further contact with law enforcement, and being exemplary parents and community members.

Any policy that does any of those things needs to be congratulated. This policy does all of them. And for that, we commend the State of Illinois for its leadership in ensuring that the state has a just hiring policy that opens doors that are too often slammed shut on the faces of hardworking and law abiding men and women who have earned a fair shot. 

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