Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday issued an administrative order that "bans the box" on applications for state government jobs, requiring state agencies to evaluate an applicant's skills before asking about criminal history.
Going forward, applicants will not have to check a box on state employment applications indicating whether or not they have pled guilty to or been convicted of any criminal offense other than a minor traffic violation. State agencies are still allowed to conduct background checks and request conviction information, but not until later in the interviewing process.
"It just removes that first hurdle," said DeAngelo Bester, co-executive director of the Chicago-based Workers Center For Racial Justice. "A lot of times when people apply for a job and check that box off, that application is thrown in the garbage. This will at least give them the opportunity to get an interview."
One in four adults, or 65 million people, have some type of criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Project. In Illinois, there are about 3.5 million people with an arrest or conviction record, which would easily show up on a background check, explained Anthony Lowery, director of policy and advocacy with the Safer Foundation, an organization focused on reducing recidivism rates.
Lowery said he receives calls on a daily basis from people up to 15 years removed from criminal activity and who have successfully completed probation, but still find their criminal record to be a major barrier to employment.
"We have people with college degrees [and] master's degrees who can't get a $10 an hour job because of a conviction 10 years ago," he stressed. "This process that the governor has signed brings some sense of relief where people can apply for state jobs [and] be looked at as a human being, because the criminal record will not be checked until after there's been an interview and there's human interaction."
Under the governor's new order, the Department of Central Management Services (CMS), responsible for receiving job applications and administering the state's personnel policies, has to issue new guidelines for screening applicants for state government jobs that fall under the governor's jurisdiction.
"A law-abiding citizen's past mistakes should not serve as a lifetime barrier to employment," Quinn said in a statement issued Thursday. "Creating opportunities for ex-offenders to obtain gainful employment and reach their full potential as a member of society is one of the most effective tools for reducing recidivism. As we know, the best tool to reduce poverty, drive down crime and strengthen the economy is a job."
Overall, the ban-the-box action has been a long time coming, those who have been pushing for the measure say. State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) has worked since 2007 to pass legislation that would remove the conviction question from state applications.
"We've reintroduced this legislation each year, but we've always came up short because of people in the Illinois General Assembly thinking this measure would somehow make them soft on crime," Lowery said.
Quinn announced back in April that he would be issuing an administrative order to remove the background check question. And in July, the Workers Center For Racial Justice and the non-profit Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) delivered 500 postcards from formerly incarcerated individuals to the governor's office calling on Quinn to move forward with the order.
Though Bester applauded Quinn's effort, he noted that a future governor could rescind the administrative order if he or she chooses. To make sure that does not happen, Bester said organizers would continue to work with state lawmakers in supprt of the ban-the-box idea in an effort to get legislation in place for both public-sector and private-sector job applications.
Illinois is the latest state to join the more than 50 U.S. jurisdictions and ten states that have already adopted some form of ban-the-box policies. Eight of those ten states have enacted legislation for public-sector jobs since 2010, with four states (Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island) also including private employer ban-the-box laws.
Bester said the recent trend is responding to the uptick in mass incarceration, especially among black and Latino individuals. The movement stems from an effort to keep people out of jail, while also bringing down states' incarceration costs.
Chicago is also part of the ban-the-box movement. The city removed the question about criminal history from the city's job applications back in 2007. Now, an applicant fills out a screening card requiring criminal-record disclosure only after the city makes a conditional offer of employment. But overall, Bester said the city's effort has not been the "magic bullet" when it comes to getting more qualified people with criminal records hired for a city job. Based on Bester's experience working with people at the labor center, he said only a small number of individuals with criminal records have been able to gain city contractor jobs. According to a 2011 Chicago Sun-Times investigation, the city of Chicago hired 139 people with criminal records during 2009 to 2010.
Bester stressed that removing the criminal record question from job applications is only the first step in the larger fight to stop discrimination against formerly incarnated people.
The state, however, has made other big strides when it comes to adopting policies meant to give people with criminal records a second shot at employment and a productive life. Quinn recently signed into law a measure that streamlines the criminal record expungement process, effective immediately. And effective January 1, non-violent convictions will be permitted to be cleared from an offender's record after two years of probation.
Additionally, the state increased the maximum income tax credit, from $600 to $1,500, for employers who hire qualified individuals with criminal backgrounds.
Though the larger tax credit is a "great step", Bester said the amount is still not where it needs to be in order to encourage more businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people.
The labor center is trying to push for a tax credit or "job voucher" program geared toward employees, instead of employers. Under such a system, Bester said formerly imprisoned people could receive a job voucher from the state worth a certain amount in tax credits and award it to an employer upon being hired.
"That's a better way to ensure that formerly incarcerated people get jobs, because the way it works now, the current tax credit systems are not effective at getting people jobs," he explained.