Twenty years ago, criminal record background checks for employment were rare. Today, the easy accessibility of criminal records on the Internet, and the post-September 11th culture of heightened scrutiny, have contributed to a sharp increase in background checks of job candidates. If you’re applying for jobs in most industries, expect employers to ask about a criminal record at some point in the hiring process—and expect many of them to run a background check on you.
It’s a harsh reality for an estimated one in four U.S. adults who have some type of criminal record. Unfortunately, any involvement with the criminal justice system—even having minor or old offenses—could become a job obstacle for these 70 million Americans. Even if you’ve avoided a run-in with the law, you could still find yourself being unfairly screened out for a job due to an erroneous background check report. With thousands of private background check companies across the country that have varying levels of reliable information, inaccuracies in these reports are far too common.
Unknown to many job candidates, private background check companies and the employers relying on their reports are regulated by a federal consumer protection law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Although more well-known in the credit report context, FCRA also applies to companies that produce criminal background check information, and gives job-seekers a number of protections.
The Fortune Society has charged a Queens landlord with civil rights violations for refusing to rent to people with a criminal record. From the New York Times report on the lawsuit filed in federal district court on October 30:
The lawsuit was brought against the owners and manager of the Sand Castle, a rental complex in Far Rockaway, Queens, with more than 900 apartments. The suit is one of the latest efforts in a nationwide push to make it easier to integrate people emerging from prisons back into their communities.
Concern over legal restrictions that hinder former prisoners’ efforts to find jobs and homes, long voiced by advocates of criminal justice reform, has taken on a broader urgency in recent years. Faced with stark fiscal pressures and rising criticism, many state governments have been rethinking practices that led to record levels of incarceration. Nationwide, about 700,000 people a year are currently being released from prison
Bars against former offenders in housing are said to be common around the country, although some landlords apply them only partially — barring sex offenders or arsonists, for example, or allowing those convicted of misdemeanors but not felons. The ability of landlords to easily look up criminal backgrounds on the Internet is believed to have increased the practice.
The Fortune Society’s press release on the suit can be found here.
An article on the front page of today’s New York Times describes the growing popularity of “ban-the-box” laws to help people with a criminal record get jobs. The article also discusses the massive hurdles to employment that many with a criminal conviction in their past — some of which are for minor offenses that are a decade or more old — face without such laws in place to ensure fair hiring practices.
The National Employment Law Project (“NELP”) keeps track of the growing number of states and cities that have adopted ban-the-box laws, including summaries of the laws and policies in those jurisdictions. NELP’s current guide to state and local ban-the-box laws (including coverage of legislative initiatives) can be found here.
From the article:
During the past several months, states and cities as varied as Illinois; Nebraska; New Jersey; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; and New Orleans and have adopted so-called Ban the Box laws. In total, some 70 cities and 13 states have passed such laws — most in the past four years.
The laws generally prohibit employers from asking applicants about criminal records as an initial step in the hiring process and from running criminal background checks until job seekers are considered serious candidates for an opening.
Studies have found that ex-offenders, particularly African-Americans, are far less likely to be called back for job interviews if they check the criminal history box on applications, even though research has shown that those possessing a criminal record are no more apt to commit a crime in the workplace than colleagues who have never been convicted.
The Times has posted some interesting responses from the founders of the Pennsylvania-based Fair Employment Opportunities Project (and others) here. The attorneys behind the Project argue for additional restrictions on the use of criminal history information once it has been disclosed to employers:
While “Ban the Box” laws that forbid asking about a person’s criminal history are a good first step, we need stronger laws to empower job applicants with arrest or conviction records to become self-sufficient through employment. Several states already have such statutes, including Pennsylvania, where the Fair Employment Opportunities Project is working to educate employers and the public about the law.
Pennsylvania’s statute [18 Pa.C.S. § 9125] could be a model for other states. It forbids employers from considering non-convictions (like acquittals) when making hiring decisions. Convictions may be considered only to the extent they relate to the applicant’s suitability for the job. And when employers reject applicants because of their records, they must give written notice — an important safeguard, because criminal record databases are notoriously error-ridden and ensnare even people who were charged but never convicted.
A federal district court in Philadelphia has issued the first decision to invalidate the federal felon-in-possession statute on constitutional grounds. The notable as-applied Second Amendment ruling comes in Binderup v. Holder, No. 13-cv-06750 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 25, 2014). Perhaps significantly, Binderup is a civil rights suit brought by an individual seeking relief from a minor conviction in his distant past, not one in which a defendant is seeking to avoid prosecution a federal criminal on Second Amendment grounds. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:
As further discussed below, plaintiff distinguishes himself from those individuals traditionally disarmed as the result of prior criminal conduct and demonstrates that he poses no greater threat of future violent criminal activity than the average law-abiding citizen. Therefore, he prevails on his as-applied challenges to § 922(g)(1) on Second-Amendment grounds under the framework for such claims set forth by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 2011).
The Binderup decision is here. Gene Volokh’s comments on the decision from the Volokh Conspiracy are here.
Alan Gura, who represented Mr. Binderup and argued both D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago in the Supreme Court, promises more Second Amendment fireworks involving people with dated non-violent convictions. Criminal defense lawyers representing clients on felon-in-possession charges, and anyone seeking restoration of firearms after conviction, should keep an eye on this space.
The website of the Center for Community Alternatives announces this important development involving college admissions:
The campaign to eliminate barriers to higher education for people with criminal history records, led by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, is gaining traction. Less than a month ago, the New York Times Editorial Board called for colleges to remove the question about criminal records from college admissions applications. Today, the New York State’s Attorney General’s office announced a settlement with three colleges in New York state, that will end their practice of asking applicants if they have ever been arrested. The New York Times article about the settlement cites CCA’s study to support the Attorney General’s actions.
Link to the New York Times editorial.
Link to the New York Times article.
Link to the Attorney General’s Press Release.
As reported in this local article, headlined “Some sex offenders can’t be forced to wear GPS monitors, N.J. Supreme Court rules,” the top state court in the Garden State issued a significant constitutional ruling holding that New Jersey cannot force sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devises if they were convicted before the monitoring program was signed into law seven years ago. The court voted 4-3 to uphold an appellate panel’s decision that said it was unconstitutional for the state Parole Board to require George C. Riley to wear the ankle monitor when he was released from prison in 2009 after serving 23 years for attempted sexual assault of a minor.
Justice Barry Albin wrote that Riley, 81, of Eatontown, should not be subject to the 2007 law because it constitutes an additional punishment that was not included in the sentence he already served. The Court agreed with the lower court that the “retroactive application” of the GPS program to Riley violates the ex post facto clauses in the U.S. and state Constitutions, which safeguard against imposing “additional punishment to an already completed crime.” The court also rejected the state’s argument that the GPS monitor is not punitive but “only civil and regulatory.”
“Parole is a form of punishment under the Constitution,” Albin wrote for the high court. “SOMA is essentially parole supervision for life by another name.” He added that “the disabilities and restraints placed on Riley through twenty -four-hour GPS monitoring enabled by a tracking device fastened to his ankle could hardly be called ‘minor and indirect.’”
The full ruling in Riley v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-94-11 (NJ Sept. 22, 2014) is available at this link.
–Read full article at Sentencing Law and Policy.
In the past two weeks, both California and Missouri have passed laws allowing persons with a felony conviction to receive assistance under the federal TANF and SNAP programs. Federal law makes felony conviction grounds for ineligibility for food assistance programs, though federal law also allows state legislatures to opt out. States including Alabama and Virginia have also considered opting out of the ban.
“In a lot of cases, the law enforcement community is supportive and feels this is a way to reduce recidivism,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal D.C. think tank. Lower-Basch noted that other states, including Alabama and West Virginia, have also considered changing their policies. “We’re moving in the right direction.
–From The Huffington Post