Pennsylvania State Representative Darisha Parker (D-Philadelphia) this week introduced a measure to restrict employers’ consideration of job applicants’ criminal records.
In a statement on her bill, Parker cited data from the U.S. Department of Justice indicating that nearly a third of Americans have a criminal record, almost as many as having earned college degrees. She said incurring such a record has proved a major burden for many Pennsylvanians seeking jobs as well as housing and public benefits.
Her legislation would bar employers from asking job seekers about or weighing those applicants’ juvenile or summary offenses as well as any cases that resulted in no convictions. Expunged and pardoned cases would also be off-limits for consideration.
Parker’s bill would furthermore provide guidance for businesses deciding whether someone’s past criminal offenses bear upon the job the individual holds or for which he or she is applying. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry would be charged with enforcing the legislation should it become law.
“All too often otherwise qualified individuals are not considered for jobs because they have a past criminal offense,” Parker said. “Many of these offenses are unrelated to the job in question, are non-violent in nature or occurred in adolescence. While both federal and state law offer some protections in this area, it is clear more needs to be done to give these job seekers, as well as those currently employed, a second chance by removing unfair roadblocks to economic stability.”
The representative said that she expects not only job seekers to benefit from her legislation but also businesses “who might overlook otherwise qualified individuals.”
Parker’s legislation would build upon similar reforms the commonwealth has already undertaken. In 2017, Governor Tom Wolf (D) removed questions about past criminal convictions from most state employment applications, following a similar policy President Barack Obama instituted on the federal level the previous year. And in 2018, Wolf signed a bipartisan “clean slate” law that sealed non-conviction records as well as the records of those who committed nonviolent misdemeanor offenses who managed to keep their records clean for a decade afterward.
Some jurisdictions have gone further. Since 2016, the city of Philadelphia has disallowed employers to inquire about potential employees’ past criminal offenses. Many private employers have likewise taken it upon themselves to refrain from asking applicants about possible criminal histories.
Some supporters of workplace efforts to “ban the box” (i.e. eliminate questions about criminal records) nonetheless have expressed concern that government prohibitions on such inquiries could go too far.
The D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, for instance, has praised employers who have voluntarily banned the box; Heritage scholars John Malcolm and John-Michael Seibler have written that they find that ex-convicts’ employment has proven the greatest factor in reducing recidivism. Nonetheless, they add, public ban-the-box policies may actually worsen the employment prospects for young, low-skilled, minority male job seekers.
“Specifically,” write Malcolm and Seibler, “private employers, if prohibited from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal background, may resort instead to assumptions or stereotypes based on observable characteristics such as race or gender in order to infer the likelihood that the applicant has a criminal history, thereby increasing racial or gender disparities beyond what they would have been had the employer been able to do a background check in the first instance.”
Heritage furthermore opposes government deciding for employers about whether criminal histories should be examined because criminal convictions are sometimes germane to the jobs that applicants are seeking. For example, Malcolm and Seibler write, it would be reasonable for an employer to resist hiring a convicted thief to operate a cash register.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 37 states and over 150 localities have enacted some form of ban-the-box policy.
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