Every day for over a year, Janna Saville has stood at the northwest intersection of George and Park streets asking for money.
Saville, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was sent to prison in the 1990s after writing a bad check for medical treatment she could not afford. Since leaving prison over a year ago, she has been homeless, though she has submitted dozens of job applications over the past few months. The reason, Saville says, is “the box” — the check box on job applications that requires applicants to indicate whether they have a criminal history.
“I’ve been applying everywhere. You name it,” Saville said. “I’ve worked at Stop & Shop for seven years. I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ve worked everywhere before going to prison.”
Advocates say the box simplifies the hiring process for businesses by allowing employers to more easily screen applicants and decide who deserves an interview based on presence of a criminal record. But because of stories like Saville’s, a nationwide movement called “Ban the Box” developed after the 2008 recession calling to remove the question from applications. The movement led to the adoption of legislation in over 50 cities across the United States that restricts employers’ ability to screen applicants’ criminal history. This movement does not exclude Connecticut, where a bill to ban the box passed through committee last month.
New Haven passed its Ban the Box Ordinance in 2009, removing questions on city job applications about criminal history and permitting background checks only after employers have made a provisional offer of employment. Earlier this year, House Bill 5237, the Fair Chance Employment Act — which would expand the protections that are currently offered in Connecticut — was introduced to the state General Assembly. More extensive than New Haven’s Ban the Box Ordinance, the bill would ban private and public sector businesses from checking applicants’ criminal history until employers make a conditional offer of employment. After being referred to the Joint Committee on Labor and Public Employees in February 2016 and unanimously passing through the Office of Legislative Research and Office of Fiscal Analysis in March 2016, the act currently sits in the Office of Legislative Research and Office of Fiscal Analysis.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that people who have been in the system have an opportunity to find work,” said state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We recognize there are some jobs that you really do need to know what people’s history is. But as time has progressed there’s been a proliferation of using criminal background checks as a barrier to employment.”
Holder-Winfield said that the bill would apply to all job seekers, even those who have just been released from prison. Employers should not consider the amount of time applicants have been out of jail when making hiring decisions, he said. Holder-Winfield added that the American prison system is based on the notion that once criminals have completed their sentences, they are absolved of their crime.
The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project is another proponent of the Fair Chance Employment Act. Patrick Sullivan ’18, co-coordinator of YUPP’s advocacy branch, noted that the discrimination that ex-offenders face is a harmful manifestation of a stigma against people who have served a prison sentence. Sullivan added that a person’s debt to society has been fully repaid after his or her time in prison.
“[Ex-offenders] have spent their time in prison,” Sullivan said. “As I see it, [prison] is not to exorbitantly punish people or continue to punish people for the rest of their lives. They go to prison and they are supposed to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. And the people in prison want to do that. They want to participate in the community. They want to have a job.”
Opposition to the bill comes from employers who say they are seeking the best candidates for their job openings. The National Federation of Independent Business has been a vocal opponent of H.B. 5237 as it is currently drafted. According to NFIB Connecticut State Director Andrew Markowski, small business owners are concerned about the limitation and burden they would have to shoulder if the bill passes in the state General Assembly.
Markowski said this bill disrupts the small business owners’ hiring processes. Under the proposed bill, employers can only conduct background checks on their applicants once they have made a provisional offer. But he said this oftentimes slows down the hiring process and adds unnecessary steps for small business owners. If employers decide against hiring an applicant after the background check, they then have to restart the hiring process, Markowski said.
“The bill as currently drafted … is certainly a laudable goal to give everyone a second chance with regards to employment,” Markowski said. “But the bill as it is currently written, we think, it will place too much burden and liability on employers and shield relevant information from employers in the decision-making process.”
Yet proponents of the bill argue that it is necessary for businesses to adapt to the bill and that an initial criminal background check disadvantages minority groups. David McGuire, legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said there is “absolutely no doubt” that the existing system has a bigger impact on communities of color than on society as a whole, according to an April 1 CT News Junkie article.
One hundred former inmates are released in New Haven every month, according to Sullivan.