A bill that bars employers from asking about a person’s criminal history on a job application form has become law in Vermont.
A “Ban the Box” bill was signed into law by Governor Peter Shumlin on Tuesday. It removes the criminal history question from most private sector job applications in Vermont while retaining an employer’s right to conduct background checks and to ask about convictions during job interviews.
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Public Policy Manager Dan Barlow says many of their members have already “banned the box” from their applications and regard its deletion as part of modern hiring practices. “We know right now that for companies that do have the box on their application if someone checks that box who has a criminal history that application most likely ends up in the trash can and then that person never even makes it to an interview to explain to a prospective employer what their skills and qualifications are and why they're a good fit for the job and you know really importantly the details of their conviction and what they've done since being released to rebuild their lives. So we think that's really valuable information for the employer and tells them a lot more than whether or not a person checks a box on a job application.”
Vermont Legal Aid Attorney Christopher Curtis is co-chair of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council. He calls the law a fair second chance for Vermonters who made a mistake in their past. Curtis says Ban the Box is one of the most important elements of criminal justice reform. “The question about a prior conviction on initial application may even apply to simple misdemeanors. And a lot of times if a person enters into a plea deal for a lesser sentence a simple misdemeanor may be the thing that ends up on their record. And they may not even be aware that they're going to have to in the future answer questions on initial applications about a prior conviction. So this is going to open up the doors to opportunity for many, many Vermonters. And we think that one of the key things you can do to prevent poverty, prevent recidivism, is for Vermonters to be able to have a good job.”
Employers can still do background checks, do internet searches on applicants, and ask about criminal history during a job interview. Barlow notes that the bill does include some common-sense exemptions. “There is an exemption in the bill for jobs that have existing state or federal prohibitions. You know hiring someone who’s been convicted of embezzlement to work in a bank or someone who has been convicted of sexual assault working with women or children or something like that. So there are existing provisions in there that will allow some jobs to keep that question on their job application. And quite frankly again it doesn't prohibit any employer from doing what they do now which is background checks, asking around about a person, googling them. We know that an essential part of someone getting out of prison in order to rebuild their life is a good job. And right now we have some real barriers to employment for this population.”
The day before Governor Shumlin signed “Ban the Box” into law, the concept was discussed during a criminal justice reform forum in Burlington. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker is a strong advocate of such laws. “People who come out of prison we put them in a vice. We put them in such a horrific caste system. In fact in America in the majority of our states it is legal to discriminate against someone, deny them housing, a job, for not even being convicted. If you have an arrest record in America it is legal to discriminate against that person in housing, employment just for having that arrest record.”
The governor's office says Vermont is the seventh state to implement a statewide "ban the box" law for both state and private employers. The law is effective July 1st, 2017.