Today, the City Council considers legislation that could change the lives of many of our clients. Introduced by Tommy Wells, the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act will give returning citizens a chance at jobs which they are often never considered for. Currently, the bill prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal record until after an initial interview. However, advocates are fighting for a stronger bill that would:
- Protect against an employer discriminating on the basis of arrests that do not result in convictions
- Prohibit employers from looking at an applicant’s criminal background before making a conditional offer of employment
- Require employers to provide a “legitimate business reason” should they choose not to hire someone because of their criminal record
- Give employees a private right of action in limited circumstances
As it is currently written, the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act of 2014 is a great first step toward comprehensive policy that prevents discrimination against the men and women in this city who have criminal histories. We must now do more to ensure that this legislation is actually able to help the people it is meant to help.
You may ask why Bread for the City is interested in this bill. It’s because, in our Southeast Center, we see firsthand the result of employer policies that automatically disqualify Returning Citizens. According to a report by the Urban Institute, for every 1,000 residents East of the River, there are roughly 33 parolees — the largest percentage in the city. On average, 8,000 fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, husbands and friends return from DC Jail or prison each year. Ward 8 has the largest percentage of the city’s returning citizens, and in 2011, Ward 8 also had the highest rate of unemployment in the entire country.
Studies also show that stable employment reduces the rate of recidivism. And while initiatives like Project Empowerment and Bread for the City’s own Pre-Employment Program (PEP) are so important in helping returning citizens write resumes and prepare for interviews, the challenge for many of the participants has been that they never get an opportunity to use their skills — not because they are unprepared or unqualified, but because many employers won’t even grant an interview to someone with a criminal record.
We cannot continue to tell 8,000 residents each year that, even though they have paid their debt with years of their life, that it’s not enough and that they don’t deserve a fair chance in this city. Take James White, one of the clients who testified at a recent Fair Criminal Records Screening Act hearing. James is a PEP graduate and a former intern in Bread’s Clothing Room. He is a hard worker who pushes himself beyond his comfort zone. He is never late, he doesn’t complain, and he shows up to work hard, rain or shine. And yet, he has been discriminated against by people who didn’t even take the chance to get to know him, because of a box and their preconceived notions about what it means to have a record. He made sure to get to the Council to testify at the hearing because this issue affects his life.
Bread for the City’s Community Lawyering Project has been working hard with a coalition of advocates who understand the importance of getting our returning citizens back to work. We’re thrilled that the bill has made it this far but we need to ensure that it’s legislation that makes a meaningful difference.
Will you stand with workers today? Call the Council and tell them to vote YES to the Ban the Box amendments that strengthen the Bill!
Mendelson (Chair) — 724-8032
Orange (At-Large) — 724-8174 Graham (1) — 724-8181 McDuffie (5) — 724-8028
Bonds (At-Large) — 724-8064 Evans (2) — 724-8058 Wells (6) — 724-8072
Grosso (At-Large) — 724-8105 Cheh (3) — 724-8062 Alexander (7) — 724-8068
Catania (At-Large) — 724-7772 Bowser (4) — 724-8052 Barry (8) — 724-8045
*Aja’s work is made possible in part through private funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation