Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would ban employers in the state from having a box on a job application that asks about the applicant’s criminal history and asking about criminal records in preliminary job interviews.
The ‘ban the box’ legislation — which would apply to both public- and private-sector employers — would not prevent employers from conducting background checks. Many cities and counties — including Providence and Boston — already ‘ban the box.’ Seven states have adopted policies similar to the proposed legislation, according to the 2012 National Employment Law Project report Resource Guide.
If passed, the bill would give applicants “a chance to be considered on their qualifications, not immediately rejected from consideration because of a wrong decision in their past for which they have paid their debt to society,” Slater said in a press release.
Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, Glocester and Coventry, who is co-sponsoring the bill, wrote in an email to The Herald that he is disappointed with media outlets that reported the bill would force employers to hire felons, including individuals whose specific convictions should disqualify them from certain professions — for example, a convicted sex-offender applying for a job at a school. “An applicant can in fact be disqualified if there is a ‘direct relationship’ with their criminal history and the nature of the job being sought,” Chippendale wrote.
A “‘direct relationship’ means that the nature of the criminal conduct for which the person was convicted has a direct bearing on his or her fitness or ability to perform one or more of the duties or responsibilities necessarily related to the license or employment sought,” according to the text of the bill.
Employers can ask about a criminal background or run background checks to determine whether a “direct relationship” exists once they have determined the applicant is a serious candidate for the job, Chippendale wrote, and they can refuse to hire applicants if federal and state statutes prohibit individuals with their criminal records from holding certain positions.
This is the third year Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) has pushed for this bill with Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence and Slater, said Misty Wilson, organizer for DARE. The bill will be heard in the House Labor Committee March 20, though a date to vote on the legislation has not yet been determined. The Senate is yet to schedule hearings on the bill.
The Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce has voiced the most prominent criticism of the bill, Wilson said. “No one has outwardly come out to oppose the bill yet, but we’re working on a getting a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce so that we can communicate about their concerns,” Wilson said.
“Not only is (non-compliance with federal law) a concern but there is a further concern about safety and potential employer liability,” the North Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce posted on its website.
“A culture of criminal background checks has cast a cloud of discrimination upon many people and their families,” wrote Bruce Reilly, a law student at Tulane University and convicted felon, in an article on liberal news site RIFuture.org.
One of the main opponents of the bill was “a lobbyist who represents background check companies,” Reilly said. The companies fear the law will expose flaws in their methodology, making them vulnerable to lawsuits, he wrote.
Metts emphasized the importance of the bill for alleviating discrimination against people of color in the state, helping to combat recidivism and racial profiling in job applications. “People coming out of prison need jobs to feed their families, pay rent, move on with their lives,” he said in a press release. “A job, a place to live and supportive services are the three legs of the stool of successful re-entry programs, but one of those legs is missing when a person can’t find a job, and unemployment continues the cycle of repeat incarceration,” he said.
“I have consciously hired previously incarcerated individuals with the goals of helping them get their feet back on the ground, offering them an opportunity to become productive members of society, helping reduce recidivism and the corresponding burden on our prison systems and welfare programs,” Chippendale wrote.