October 1, 2015

Boxes are so last decade

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Did you see the recent report that Wisconsin has the largest unemployment rate amongst African-Americans than any other state in the nation?

It seems to me that statistic goes hand in hand with the fact that we have one the highest black incarceration rates in the nation. It’s no wonder Wisconsin was ranked the worst state in the nation to raise a black child.

In dire circumstances like these, people like to point the finger and pass blame. While assigning blame where it belongs may make us feel good, it won’t solve the problem. That’s why I’m pleased to announce my intention of reintroducing my “Ban the Box” bill.

Many people have a tough time getting a job after incarceration because employers require job applicants to divulge if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony on their job application. Banning the box simply removes that question from the application. Eighteen states already have some form of ban the box on the books, including Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. It has been hard getting Republicans on board with this idea in the past. But now, Many policymakers are beginning to see the error in “tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” policies of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. 

At the federal level, we are seeing positive movement thanks in large part to President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The President’s task force laid out a comprehensive plan to address the racial and economic inequities that plague boys and young men of color. As part of this initiative, the task force recommended banning the box in 2014. The report states banning the box gives, “applicants a fair chance and allows employers the opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits...”

Banning the box still allow employers to conduct a background check. However, the employers would delay asking about a felony conviction until later in the hiring process, either after the interview or a conditional offer of employment. This is also known as “fair chance” because it gives job applicants who have rehabilitated a fair shot at earning a family-supporting job.

Research on this issues is clear. Employment of people with arrest or conviction records not only reduces recidivism but it also strengthens families who have an individual with a record. If people are happy, healthy, have a good paying job and can contribute to their families, they are much less likely to engage in illegal activity to turn a quick buck.

In Minneapolis, the data shows that banning the box has had a great impact. In that city, when officials removed conviction and arrest histories from the application and postponed background checks until after a conditional offer of employment was made, more than half of those applicants were hired.

The good news is that we’re seeing some great progress at the federal level. In Congress, Wisconsin’s very own Sen. Ron Johnson is joined by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on a bill that removes the box on federal employment applications. And right here in Wisconsin, even the Republican efforts to dismantle Wisconsin’s long and proud civil service system for state workers includes a ban the box provision.

Stay tuned for a ban the box bill in the next few weeks. I am currently working with Republicans to iron out the details to ensure this bill has bipartisan support from the beginning. It is my hope that we can get this bill passed. Even if it helps just a few individuals land a family-supporting job and get the chance to offer support to their families, our community will be that much better off.