Illinois could soon become the fifth U.S. state to "ban the box" that inquires about criminal history on initial applications for most private sector jobs.
The state House recently voted 63-53 to approve the "Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act," which would require private employers or employment agencies in Illinois with 15 or more employees to evaluate an applicant's skills and qualifications before asking about criminal history. Under the measure, sponsored by State Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), employers would be allowed to conduct background checks and request conviction information from applicants, but not until later in the interviewing process.
House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted to send the bill, HB 5701, to the Senate, where it is now awaiting action in the chamber's Executive Committee. The committee is slated to hold a hearing on the legislation this Wednesday.
Under the pending measure, an employer or employment agency could not "inquire about or into, consider, or require disclosure of the criminal record or criminal history of an applicant until the applicant has been determined qualified for the position and notified that the applicant has been selected for an interview ... or, if there is not an interview, until after conditional offer of employment is made to the applicant."
The proposed legislation would not apply to positions involving fidelity bonding or jobs where employers have to disqualify applicants with certain criminal convictions due to federal or state law.
DeAngelo Bester, co-executive director and senior strategist with the Chicago-based Workers Center For Racial Justice, said it is common practice for many employers to reject job applications that have a check mark in the box about criminal history.
"If someone checks (the box), then that application nine times out of 10 gets tossed in the garbage," he said. "By removing that box, it gives people with criminal backgrounds an opportunity to sit in front of an employer face-to-face and explain their story and tell their side ... and basically explain why they deserve a second chance."
Approximately 4 million people in Illinois currently have some type of arrest or conviction record that would show up on a routine background check, said Anthony Lowery, director of policy and advocacy with the Chicago-based Safer Foundation, an organization focused on reducing recidivism rates.
"You may find a few employers who may understand the need for providing second chances, but the majority of employers don’t," he stressed. "This has been a long-standing battle over the years to just level the playing field [and] provide people who show that they’ve rehabilitated their lives the opportunity to just work. I think the simplicity of work is the most direct link to reduce recidivism, saving taxpayers in this state millions of dollars in the associated costs of incarceration."
Illinois already prohibits state agencies from asking about criminal history on initial government job applications. Job applicants no longer have to check a box on state employment applications indicating whether they have pled guilty to or been convicted of any criminal offense other than a minor traffic violation.
Gov. Pat Quinn issued an executive order back in October to pull the criminal background question from state job applications and supports extending the ban-the-box policy to private employers in Illinois.
"He is pleased [that the bill] passed the House and looks forward to signing it if it passes the Senate," said Quinn spokesman David Blanchette.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) also "supports the bill and intends to be a cosponsor," said Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon.
Proponents of the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act are in a race against the clock. The Senate must pass the measure before the current legislative session ends on May 31. If the bill does not clear the full Senate this month, the chamber would have to wait until the fall veto session to revisit the issue. If the bill doesn't make it through the current or fall veto legislative sessions, the process to pass the legislation would have to start over in the next full session, meaning the House would be required to vote on it once again.
Advocates, however, remain hopeful that the bill will arrive on Quinn's desk in the next few weeks.
"We're actually pretty optimistic," Bester said. "We think this is about as close as we’ve come to getting a ban-the-box bill passed. The House is the more conservative of the two chambers from everything I’ve learned, so by getting it passed in the House, that was a pretty big hurdle."
Before Quinn issued his executive order to remove criminal history informaton on preliminary state job applications, advocates tried for years to get similar legislation approved in the legislature, but to no avail. State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), for example, has worked since 2007 to get a bill passed that would remove the conviction question from state applications.
"People really wanted to get the box banned both on public and private sector job (applications), and La Shawn Ford made a political decision that it would probably be easier to do that with state jobs," Bester explained.
Overall, Lowery explained that the push to remove criminal history information from job applications has been a hard sell to critics. At least one opponent of such measures is the National Federation of Independent Business, which states on its website that, "Prohibiting questions about criminal records is simply not conducive to public safety or to the successful operation of our free enterprise system." A representative from NFIB/Illinois could not be reached for comment regarding the group's position on HB 5701.
"They look at it that you’re trying to hide something," Lowery said of the bill's opponents. "They don’t understand the true merits of the legislation that no, we’re not trying to hide the record ... The fear is that the employer is not going to know who they’re hiring. With this process you’re going to know who you’re hiring. The record is going to be there, but also you will have some human interaction."
Some businesses are coming around to the idea, though.
Back in October, the Minneapolis-based Target Corporation announced it was pulling questions about criminal history from its jobs applications in stores across the country. And a more recent victory came in March when Itasca-based Jewel-Osco did away with its so-called "felony question", which was asked in the initial phases of the job application process.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which initially opposed the pending Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act, is now neutral on the legislation. The chamber changed its stance on the pending bill after the House adopted an amendment to exempt employers with less than 15 employees.
In addition to Illinois, ten other U.S. states have already adopted some form of ban-the-box policies. But only four of those states — Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island — currently extend their laws to private employers.
The city of Chicago is also part of the national ban-the-box movement, which advocates say has come in response to the uptick in mass incarceration, especially among black and Latino individuals. The city of Chicago removed the criminal history question from its municipal job applications back in 2007.
With the end of the state's current legislative session looming, Lowery and Bester said ban-the-box supporters plan to light up the phone lines of state senators over the next few weeks.
"Hopefully Senate leadership will understand the need for this legislation to rebuild urban communities in the state of Illinois and provide the real opportunity for people to be seen as human beings, where their education, their work experience and their credentials can be looked at along with the criminal record," Lowery said. "Because (this measure) doesn’t hide your record, it just delays when the background check can be done."
If the Senate approves the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act this month and Quinn signs it, the legislation would take effect January 1, 2015.