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/

Of course, for African Americans, the measure could prove especially important, since the black community tends to face incarceration rates that are disproportionate to its size in the greater community.

According to data published in July (pdf) by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, African Americans made up more than 80 percent of the more than 142,000 adult arrests made from 2009 to 2011 by the Metropolitan Police Department. The study also found that District wards with large populations of African Americans were more prone to witness arrests. About 70 percent of the arrests made in five particular wards were home to about 90 percent of black District residents. All that being taken into consideration, black inmates make up about 91 percent of the District’s jail population (pdf).

Such statistics, however, do not mean that the issue is solely a “black” problem, or even an “individual” problem.

“What I think is very important is there are a lot of consequences associated with the disproportionate amount of African Americans who are being incarcerated,” the councilman stressed. “[These are] individuals who are coming home, who need support, who need to integrate. It’s important that we support reintegration from a government perspective and put forward policies to make sure that happens, and [this is one of  those policies].

“What’s fundamental and sometimes gets forgotten is that people commit crimes and there are consequences associated,” he added. “After people have paid their debts … we need to support their reintegration, because they’re trying to support their families. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and entire communities are going to be impacted by lack of support for people who are returning.”

After people have paid their debts … we need to support their reintegration, because they’re trying to support their families.

The measure does not aim to dictate exactly whom employers should hire; nor does it give applicants who may suspect that an employer is rejecting them based on a criminal record the right to sue. It does, however, try to ensure that employers look at the potential and possibilities within each worker before casting judgment.                                     

“What we’re asking for in this measure is for employers to do a more thorough assessment of an applicant’s qualifications and to look at several factors that relate to the conviction and the type of employment that the applicant is seeking,” McDuffie explained. “[They need] legitimate business reasons to disqualify someone with a conviction.”

Such as if a person’s conviction is directly related to the job she or he is seeking.

“If a person applies for a job to be a bank teller, for example, where you handle money, you are in charge and responsible for counting money and handling other people’s money … and you have a conviction for fraud, then perhaps there’s a nexus between that conviction and the type of employment you’re seeking,” the lawmaker pointed out, saying such an example would merit disqualification.