State Politics

Lawmaker wants Idaho to ‘ban the box’ to help ex-offenders get jobs

The Idaho Statehouse rotunda.
The Idaho Statehouse rotunda. Idaho Statesman file

About 95 percent of people in prison will re-enter society at some point.

“These people who have or will enter their communities need gainful employment to build stability and to find success after incarceration,” Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, told the Legislature’s Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee on Monday.

For most ex-offenders, the first step to rebuilding their lives is getting a job, which means filling out employment applications.

But a simple check-box on a job application has become an obstacle to ex-offenders having a fair chance at getting a job, Buckner-Webb said.

She wants to remove that obstacle by prohibiting employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the job application process.

The policy, dubbed “ban the box,” has been adopted by adopted by 30 states and more than 150 cities and counties nationwide, according to the National Employment Law Project.

An ex-offender having to check an “Are you a criminal?” box “slashes the likelihood of call back or an offer on any kind” for many who apply,” she said.

“People with felony records have difficulty obtaining employment, which impacts their ability to secure safe housing and to provide for themselves and their families,” she said.

About 20 percent of Idahoans have a criminal record, she said.

“The goal is if you serve your time and do what you are supposed to do, go through your parole and meet all of the hoops that have been put before you, you should have an opportunity to contribute to society,” she said.

Once an applicant gets a conditional offer of employment “then that rigorous process of checking their background, seeing what their criminal history is and all that stuff is done,” she said. By removing the criminal history question on job applications, all applicants first would be evaluated on their qualifications, not their past mistakes, she explained.

The committee voted to hold a hearing on Buckner-Webb’s proposal.

Several committee members agreed that the stigma of being an ex-offender can make it difficult to get a job, but they had concerns about employers having to get well into the application process they can consider an applicant’s previous criminal convictions.

“Waiting until we get way downstream in the process … can cost the employer time and money and it can also result in a big letdown to the applicant,” said Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow.

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said some companies cannot hire people with any kind of a criminal background because of the services they provide or because the position requires getting a security clearance.

“I love this idea and this concept. Recidivism ends with putting people back to work,” he said. “But I am afraid we might be hamstringing some of the people we are trying to get to hire these folks if we put too many sideboards on what they can do and what they cannot do.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell