Politics & Government

Could ‘ban the box’ find bipartisan support in North Carolina?

N.C. Department of Transportation workers repair a stretch of I-95 in Johnston County following a traffic accident in October 2016. Supporters of a “Ban the Box” bill in the General Assembly want to open up more jobs like these to people with criminal records who are trying to turn their lives around.
N.C. Department of Transportation workers repair a stretch of I-95 in Johnston County following a traffic accident in October 2016. Supporters of a “Ban the Box” bill in the General Assembly want to open up more jobs like these to people with criminal records who are trying to turn their lives around. Drew Jackson

Every year, tens of thousands of North Carolinians find themselves readjusting to life as convicted criminals, adding to the population of people whose record makes it difficult to find legitimate work.

Now, a group of state legislators is trying to make it easier for someone with a criminal past to get a job. A bill filed Wednesday would enact a “Ban the Box” law for government jobs in city, county and state agencies.

If it passes, government employers in North Carolina would no longer be allowed to ask potential employees if they’ve been convicted of a crime before interviewing them. It’s called “Ban the Box” because it would remove the box on job applications that people check to indicate they’ve been convicted of a crime.

The bill’s primary sponsors are four Democrats – Reps. Cecil Brockman, Charles Graham, Rodney Moore and Garland Pierce. The co-sponsors include Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady and a dozen other Democratic legislators. They represent a mix of rural and urban counties in western, central and eastern North Carolina. Their bill says the proposed change would reduce barriers to employment and prevent people from returning to crime.

“I think it’s fair to give people another shot,” said Pierce, a Scotland County preacher.

“In order to make people whole, this is just another way to give people an opportunity,” he said. “Get them in front of somebody who’s hiring, and be able to explain it.”

Unless state law specifically says otherwise, the bill says government employers would be able to ask potential hires about their criminal history only after extending a conditional job offer. And if they do have a criminal conviction, the bill says, their record still can’t disqualify them unless it’s “substantially related to the qualifications, functions, or duties of the position.”

However, there are skeptics. Peter Coclanis, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a September op-ed for The News & Observer that such efforts are well-meaning but should be rethought. He cited studies that have found it might unintentionally harm minority job applicants, due to racist assumptions that anyone with a name that sounds black or Hispanic is a criminal.

“Instead of banning the box, however well-intended it might be, we would do better to expand it and ask applicants to explain the tick and one’s trajectory ever since,” he said.

Popping up around N.C.

The North Carolina law doesn’t apply to private companies. Nevertheless, some private companies have already stopped asking applicants about criminal records. They include Walmart, Home Depot and Koch Industries.

And even without a statewide law, “Ban the Box” policies have begun popping up around North Carolina. Charlotte passed one, as did Wake and Durham counties. Raleigh and Durham have similar policies. Nationwide, a dozen states – including red states like Georgia and Nebraska – have similar rules to what this bill proposes for North Carolina.

Jessica Holmes, the Wake County commissioner who led the local push to “Ban the Box” last year, said county officials supported it for economic and public safety reasons.

“Stable employment is one of the best predictors of post-conviction success,” she said. “So this is not only the right thing to do in terms of making sure mothers and fathers have the ability to do the right thing after they’ve paid their debt to society. But it also addresses recidivism.”

At least two bills in the legislature would create such a policy. Another bill filed Wednesday would also raise the minimum wage, allow state employees to unionize, and more. Unlike the simpler “Ban the Box” bill, the wider-ranging bill doesn’t have any Republican co-sponsors.

Who’s affected?

An estimated 1.6 million North Carolinians – one in every five adults – has a criminal record.

Most people with criminal records aren’t in prison. They’re either free or on probation, and many are looking for legitimate ways to support themselves. Pierce said it makes sense to keep them from turning back to a life of crime.

“If you fail to give me a job, I might have to do some creative things to survive,” he said. “And then we in the state have to pay $35,000 a year to keep you locked up.”

In 2013 alone, nearly 50,000 people statewide were either newly placed on probation or released from prison. A 2016 report from the state courts system found that within two years, about 40 percent of them had been arrested again.

It’s difficult to separate race from the debate over “Ban the Box” laws. Most of the bill’s sponsors are black, and Holmes, who is also black, noted that “minorities are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.”

However, Holmes said, people of all races and political leanings have criminal records – and she hopes legislators of both parties can get behind it.

A 2016 survey of registered voters in swing states found 67 percent of North Carolinians would support a national law to “remove barriers that make it more difficult for released prisoners to find jobs.” The survey was conducted by the Tarrance Group, a Republican strategy firm, and paid for by the Justice Action Network, which supports criminal justice reform.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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