There are around 70 million Americans with an arrest history or a criminal record. For that portion of the population—one in three adults, according to the National Employment Law Project—getting a job can be tough.
In some cases, private employers, such as Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, have chosen to make it a bit easier by not asking questions about criminal background on their applications. In some cases, cities, counties, and states have actually passed legislation prohibiting such questions. These so-called “Ban the Box” laws don’t mandate that employers must hire felons. They simply require that criminal background inquiries occur later in the hiring process, typically after an in-person interview or conditional offer of employment.
Among the county’s major employers, Ithaca College, Borg Warner, and Cayuga Medical Center all either declined to comment or failed to respond to questions about their policies regarding the hire of individuals with criminal backgrounds. Cornell University, Tompkins County, and the City of Ithaca all said that they do inquire about criminal background, but that it is not an automatic bar to employment.
Although neither Tompkins County nor any of its included municipalities has banned the box yet, nearby Syracuse has. Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, helped see that law through. However, the Syracuse law does not apply to all employers, but only to the city and its contractors. He said, “As we’ve seen [Ban the Box] implemented around the country there have been basically three versions. The first is the one that is the most narrow, the one in which the governmental entity—city, county, or state—bans the box for government employees only. The second is the one which applies to government entities and any business that contracts with government entities. Then the third, the one that is the broadest and gives the best of protections, takes the two that I’ve already mentioned and adds to it any private business within the locality.”
While none of the Tompkins County businesses interviewed for this article were willing to comment on Ban the Box, in some areas business interests have vocally opposed it. In an article for Cleveland.com, Director of Labor and Human Resources Policy for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce Sean Chichelli wrote, “Businesses ask candidates about their criminal histories on job applications in order to reduce liability and costs. Preventing them from doing so at the point of application only delays the necessary information they need right away.” Typically, Ban the Box advocates argue that delaying those questions allows applicants to be judged on their skills and experience rather than being summarily rejected for their pasts.
Rosenthal said that those with criminal backgrounds are not the only ones to benefit from the passage of Ban the Box legislation: “The benefits that flow from that are that if a person [with a criminal background] gets a job they now are a taxpayer, so there’s a benefit to the municipal entity in which they live. Now they’re paying taxes, they’re no longer in need of public assistance. There is the additional benefit that employment reduces the recidivism rate.” He added, “The Koch brothers have banned the box. Liberals shouldn’t be running away from this.”
Mayor Svante Myrick said that the city has talked about Ban the Box legislation in the past, but the matter never came to a vote. However, he voiced his support for the concept, saying, “If we deny people meaningful employment, we’re all but guaranteeing that they’ll go back to prison.”
One group of Cornell students, the Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP), has been actively raising awareness on the issue in recent months and one of the group’s leaders, Garrison Lovely, said that PREP has plans to address the Common Council about it during their regular May meeting. Lovely said, “We believe if you are sentenced and serve your time, you should not be punished repeatedly. It contributes to high recidivism.”
Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D-Ithaca) said that, like the city, the county has briefly talked about Ban the Box legislation, but she did not recall where the conversation ended.
Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) said, “I think we should give serious consideration to this idea. The number of people in prison, and how they integrate back into society when they are out, is an issue that affects everyone. Ban the Box legislation could help with this problem without causing any difficulties for employers or restricting their rights.”
On the other side of the aisle, Legislator Dave McKenna (R-Newfield) said, “I’m not totally in favor of it, but I don’t know enough yet.”
Paula Ioanide, an Ithaca College professor who has been active regarding issues of incarceration and race, urged action on the issue. She said, “I keep wanting to hold Tompkins County accountable to their supposed promise to be at the forefront of alternatives to incarceration, and I think this county’s openness to reentry into formal labor markets would be a huge gesture in that direction. Less talk, more action.”