Ban the Box: A Politician’s Crusade to Get the Felony Question off Job Applications

D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie has put the “teeth” back into the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act, hoping to get employers to look at people’s qualifications before judging them based on their criminal records. 

Washington, D.C., Councilman Kenyan McDuffie
Washington, D.C., Councilman Kenyan McDuffie Kenyan McDuffie/

It’s a common question that appears on almost every job application across the United States.

“Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”—or something to that effect—is usually how the question is phrased. And for some, depending on the employer, it could be the end of the road to attaining meaningful employment and successfully reintegrating into society. 

This is something Washington, D.C., Councilman Kenyan McDuffie, and other councilmembers are trying to remedy in the nation’s capital, hoping, with one act, to help curb recidivism and stop the United States’ mass-incarceration problem.

About three weeks ago, McDuffie’s amendment of the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act, a product of the Ban the Box movement, made it through the D.C. City Council after years of holdups—and thus granted job applicants with criminal records a new lease on life and greater protection against the discrimination they may face from potential employers based on their records.             

“An employer may not make any inquiry or require an applicant to disclose or reveal any criminal conviction until after making a conditional offer of employment,” the legislation reads.

“If you look at the data, one of the primary factors that contributes to recidivism is the failure to gain meaningful employment,” McDuffie, a Democrat, told The Root. “This measure is designed to address that, to prevent employers from disqualifying individuals with records without fully considering their qualifications.”

“For years we’ve said that if you commit a crime and serve a period of incarceration you’ve paid your debt to society, and in reality it’s not the case,” the Ward 5 native added, lamenting that such former prisoners often don’t have the opportunities to compete fairly.

Councilman Tommy Wells of Ward 6, also a Democrat, first introduced the bill in January. The council’s  Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in May changed the language to permit a background check after the first interview, weakening a key part of the bill, which had stressed that employers could review criminal records only after a job offer. 

McDuffie’s amendment puts the pointed language back in, proposing a background check only after a conditional offer of employment. “In a nutshell, I think we have to be smart on crime,” McDuffie said. “For years the war on drugs has ravished communities across the country, and D.C. hasn’t been an exception.”

D.C. also is no exception in trying to get rid of what some view as a problematic stance. According to the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the cause, 11 states have legislation to ban the box, including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico.