Vermont Business Magazine In order to help people with criminal convictions find employment and build successful lives, Governor Peter Shumlin has signed a bill to remove questions about criminal records from the very first part of job applications in Vermont. “Banning the box” will give those with criminal records a fair chance at a good job and reduce the risk of recidivism and incarceration. The law follows a 2015 Executive Order signed by Governor Shumlin to implement a “ban the box” hiring policy for state jobs.
Sue Bette, owner of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington. Main Street Alliance photo.
The bill (H.261), prohibits employers from asking questions about prior criminal convictions on an initial job application, allowing applicants to be judged on their work history and qualifications rather than on a mistake made in their past. Employers will still be allowed to ask questions in later stages of the hiring process and the law provides exemptions for certain positions where a criminal conviction would automatically disqualify an applicant due to state or federal law.
“Too many Vermonters with criminal records are unable to successfully re-enter their communities due to lack of employment. Banning the box is all about breaking down barriers and giving those Vermonters who have paid their debt to society a fair chance at finding a good job,” Gov. Shumlin said. “Nobody wins when Vermonters are trapped in a cycle of unemployment and incarceration.”
Just last week, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum promoting the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals, crediting lack of opportunity for those with criminal records with decreased public safety and higher costs to taxpayers. The President directed federal agencies to adopt “ban the box” hiring practices and called on agencies to review and revise procedures for evaluating an applicant’s criminal record.
Christopher Curtis, Co-Chair of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council and Attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, has made “Ban the box” hiring policies a priority.
“This legislation will allow many qualified workers to get a foot in the door to employment – it’s a fair shake and a second chance for many applicants who might otherwise find their applications in the recycle bin as a result of a prior conviction. This only results in Vermonters not being able to keep their housing or meet other important obligations,” said Curtis. “Ban the box’ can help open up new job opportunities for Vermonters.”
Governor Shumlin speaks during the "Ban the Box" bill signing. Mickey Wiles is to the far right.
The National Employment Law Project estimates 70 million American adults have arrests or convictions in their past that can make it difficult for them to obtain employment. A U.S. Labor Department survey found that an arrest early in life, regardless of whether convicted, can have significant negative effects on future prospects. According to the survey, being arrested and convicted by age 23 makes a person 11 percent less likely to own a home and 13 percent more likely to live below the poverty line by age 25. Those arrested and convicted before 23 also are less likely to graduate high school and move onto college, according to the survey.
Shumlin has made creating a fairer, more effective criminal justice system a priority. He launched a War on Recidivism and expanded Vermont's expungement laws, which have helped reduce Vermont's prison population to its lowest level since the early 2000s. Under The Governor also fought for a comprehensive pre-trial services law designed to bypass the court process for those people addicted to drugs and who can be safely treated in a community setting. And he has worked with Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan on two pilot Driver Restoration Days that have helped hundreds of Vermonters get their licenses reinstated.
Vermont is the seventh state to implement a state-wide ‘ban the box’ law that applies to both state and private employers.
by Mickey Wiles My name is Mickey Wiles and I am the CFO of Burlington Labs, where I have been given a second chance after being convicted of a felony. As a person who has improved his own life through long-term recovery, I understand the power of second chances. Returning to a position such as CFO was not a path that I ever thought I would travel again.
Vermont Business Magazine VBSR members came out in strong support for H261 last week. The Ban the Box bill is now under consideration by the Senate Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs Committee. The bill eliminates the criminal history question on job applications for most jobs - allowing prospective hires to explain their past convictions and the steps they've taken to rebuild their lives. Employers can still conduct background checks and ask about criminal records during job interviews.
“When the legislature began considering a bill to ‘Ban the Box,’ there was no shortage of interest and involvement from small business owners,” said Lindsay DesLauriers, Director of Main Street Alliance of Vermont. “We were happy to work with a great coalition of organizations on this issue, including Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty.”
Sue Bette, owner of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington, testified during committee hearings and gave a voice to business owners who support fair chance hiring practices.
“During my seven years of owning a business in Vermont, I have employed community members who have a criminal record. In working with these individuals, I have witnessed the difficulties of recovering from this past. I have seen the challenges of balancing a healthy recovery, managing work, life, finances, and family obligations,” said Bette during her testimony to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs. “I believe that this policy change will assist in creating a path to success for those who have served their sentence and have earned an opportunity for recovery and to pursue new dreams.”
Other small business owners submitted written testimony, and opinion editorials that helped to inform the conversation. Jason Aprea, owner of BBetter Inc., shared his experience of struggling to get a job post incarceration and deciding instead to open a gym with his wife. The bill passed with overwhelming support in both the House and Senate.
Passing a Ban the Box bill was one of VBSR’s top priorities for the 2016 legislative session.
“If a person is convicted of a crime and pays their debt to society, VBSR believes they deserve a second chance,” said Daniel Barlow, the public policy manager at Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. “More and more employers across the state have already banned the box – recognizing that it wrongly limits their own pool of applicants.
Signing the bill into law and expanding this practice to private employers across the state is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense for Vermont.”
The proposal received tri-partisan support in the Vermont House and Senate this year, the product of strong work by the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee and the Senate Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs Committee. Rep. Jean O’Sullivan of Burlington was the lead sponsor of the bill and an important advocate for reform. Gov. Shumlin has also been a supporter of the proposal and last year signed an executive order banning the box for state jobs.
Many VBSR members were instrumental in supporting the Ban the Box bill, including Russ Bennett, the owner of Northland Design and Construction; Chris Miller, the activism manager at Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream; Heather Wright, an attorney with WrightJones PLC; and Mickey Wiles, the chief financial officer at Burlington Labs.
“This Ban the Box law provides an opportunity for individuals to get in the door, allowing the employer to learn about a prospective hire rather than pass judgment based on a paper application,” Wiles said. “The judgment on whether to hire someone should be based more on what they have done after their crime and punishment to ensure they are taking responsibility and are accountable for their actions.
In most cases, if a person has pursued the appropriate corrective action, then they will make excellent employees.”