Guest Column from Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R – Kaukauna)

A Criminal Conviction Shouldn’t Prevent Employment 

January 21, 2016

Over the course of the last five years, the State Legislature has enacted a variety of important reforms that have strengthened Wisconsin’s fiscal health, streamlined state government operations, and generally made your state government more efficient and responsive to you as taxpayers and citizens. 

One of the smaller reforms, but one that is important, passed the Assembly last fall and the Senate this past week. This reform, known as “Ban the Box,” directs state agencies to no longer ask applicants in the earliest stages of the hiring process if they have been convicted of a crime in the past. That is unless that crime would have a substantial impact on the person’s ability to perform the job they are seeking (think of someone convicted of embezzlement applying for an accounting position). 

This small change was part of a much broader effort to ensure that state agencies are nimble enough to be able to recruit and retain the best possible workforce to serve the taxpayers. The inclusion of this language is part of that overall effort.

 We have citizens throughout the state who at some point during their lifetimes have committed a crime. As a society, we expect and deserve to see punishment for those crimes. However, we also expect that during the time they are serving their sentence, they are rehabilitated. After all, we want people coming out of the criminal justice system with a different perspective on life and possibly a new skill they can use to become productive members of society. 

In reality though, offenders who serve their time, learn a new skill or get a university or technical college degree, still have a very difficult time finding a job. One of the reasons is that most employment applications ask whether or not the applicant has been convicted of any crime. With human nature being what it is, applicants who answer affirmatively often have little to no shot of advancing to an interview. We can argue all day whether that is right or wrong, but the truth is that it happens. 

I’ve heard some argue that the offenders’ own actions led them to this point, so it’s their own fault and they have to face the consequences. I can certainly sympathize with those thoughts, but what is the practical effect for society in the long run? If the offender can’t find a legitimate job with a decent source of income, there are two likely outcomes, neither of them are positive. One, they could be relegated to entry-level jobs with little chance of improving their circumstances, which means they are also much more likely to be dependent on government assistance. Obviously this isn’t positive for anyone. Or two, they could revert back to their criminal behavior which is again not the outcome anyone desires. 

So what does banning the box do to help offenders? It simply affords them a better opportunity to advance to the interview where they have a much better chance of being judged based on who they are in that moment versus who they were when they committed the crime. It is not a silver bullet to ensure employment. It does not give offenders preferential treatment. It simply gives them a shot at a better life if they have indeed taken the necessary steps to put themselves in a better position to begin with.

I’m glad to see that through this reform, the state is going to be leading by example. We will allow everyone to be judged based upon their qualifications so that the best may serve the state. While I would never support legislation to mandate that private businesses follow suit, it is most certainly my hope that they will. I’d like to thank my Republican colleagues in both the Senate and Assembly for supporting this measure, specifically Senator Roth who authored the bill with me.