As a single mother and full-time student, Barbara Fair worked her way through college and graduate school, obtaining her master’s degree in clinical social work. But due to an arrest from more than a decade ago, city law holds that she must check a box on each employment application she fills out. Immediately and without a chance for explanation, she said, her opportunities for employment dissipate.
“All my credentials, life experiences and community service mean nothing if the employer relies on a criminal record as a measure of character,” Fair said.
Fair told her story to a crowd of aldermen, local activists at a public hearing Tuesday night in City Hall on a proposed ordinance that would eliminate the question on city employment applications asking applicants if they have been convicted of a felony. The Board of Aldermen have yet to vote on the proposal.
“If the employer sees that an applicant has checked yes,” Community Services Administration consultant Deborah Marcuse ’97 LAW ’08 said, “he has the opportunity to find another excuse in the application to justify denying employment, even if he’s only motivated by the fact that the applicant has a conviction.”
Such a practice — what Marcuse call a “blanket denial” — are illegal by federal law, a fact of which many applicants remain unaware. With the “Ban the Box” ordinance in place, such discriminatory hiring policies would be practically impossible, Marcuse said.
A few residents in attendance voiced concerns that the ordinance — first proposed by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to the Board of Aldermen in December — might infringe upon the rights of city employers, who may prefer to be aware of potential employees’ past criminal records as they judge the applicant’s qualification. Marcuse countered this concern by referencing the ease and success with which the city of Boston implemented a similar ordinance in 2006.
Nick Handler ’09, the coordinator of Student Legal Action Movement (S.L.A.M.) and the Prison Education Project, testified in favor of the initiative, saying that many who were previously incarcerated often feel limited by their criminal records despite being highly qualified for positions. A half dozen other Yale students joined Handler at the meeting to advocate for the ordinance.
CSA Administrator Kica Matos noted that in New Haven — where 25 residents are released from prison each week — employment bias based on criminal records is a problem that needs to be addressed. “The City of New Haven will not tolerate discrimination against those who have served their time and are just trying to care for their families,” she said.
Citing national studies of those previously incarcerated, Marcuse said there is a definite link between gainful employment and decreased recidivism, or the likelihood that a second offense will be committed.
“If you slam every door of legitimate employment to someone coming out of incarceration, there will only be one door left — the door they’re struggling to keep shut, the door to illicit activity,” she said.
As a mother of three sons who had been involved in drug dealing in the past, Fair attested to the importance of lawful employment.
“Now they all have jobs to take care of their families,” she said. “They never went back to the streets because they didn’t have to.”