Ban the Box

By Stacey Litner, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Prisoners’ Rights Advocate

In DC, some 60,000 residents have past conviction records and over 10,000 individuals are under supervision by our legal system. Each year about 35,000 more people are arrested, and about 8,000 individuals return to DC from prison or jail. They return, looking for housing and employment. Most find few, if any, opportunities for either. The reality is that they have returned to a city that no longer resembles the one they left; a city that offers little help to them and is home only in name. Many returning citizens contact our office each year desperate for work and housing. They have exhausted all leads and have been turned away at every door. For close to a decade, advocates throughout the District of Columbia have pushed for legislation to prevent discrimination in hiring and housing based on an arrest or conviction.

This year, the DC City Council took one step in this direction when it passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which prevents employers with more than ten employees from considering an applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional job offer has been made. This legislation requires employers to assess applicants on their qualifications first, successfully removing the blanket exclusion of those entangled in the legal system.

However, the law lacks an effective enforcement mechanism, making its impact questionable. After a conditional offer of employment is made, an employer may then conduct a criminal background check. If the employer has a “legitimate business reason” and believes that the conviction is reasonably related to the job, the offer may be rescinded with few options to appeal an unjust decision. The individual can file a complaint with the DC Office of Humans Rights (OHR), but unlike other complaints filed with OHR, there is no private right of action for applicants who can demonstrate that an employer unjustly rescinded the job offer. The law’s limitations may seriously impede effective enforcement of the law’s protections.

In addition, despite the Council’s acknowledgement that the biggest challenges faced by people returning from prison are finding stable employment and housing, the legislation fails to address discrimination faced by individuals with an arrest or conviction in housing. While we applaud the DC City Council for taking a first step in addressing the employment discrimination faced by thousands of individuals in DC, more work needs to be done to ensure that returning citizens have a real opportunity to return home.

If you are a returning citizen who has faced employment discrimination, contact paralegal Ada Lin at Ada_Lin@washlaw.org or at (202) 319-1017.

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