Tommy Wells' 'Ban the Box' Bill Gets Strong Support

James Wright | 2/10/2014, 4:11 p.m.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells introduced legislation Monday that would bar employers from inquiring about job applicants' criminal records — ...
Tommy Wells Courtesy Photo

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells introduced legislation Monday that would bar employers from inquiring about job applicants' criminal records — a practice he says hinders employment opportunities for returning citizens.

Wells (D-Ward 6), who is running for mayor, introduced the "Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014" during a hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. The bill would "ban the box," or prevent employers from asking about criminal records during the initial stage of getting a job.

There is no scheduled mark-up or vote for the legislation to go to the full council, but Wells, who chairs the committee, said that the time is right for it.

"The bill would only allow employers to ask about an applicant's record of conviction once a conditional offer of employment has been extended," he said. "The bill would continue our efforts to address the challenges facing our returning citizens, especially from the failed war on drugs."

Courtney Stewart, the chairman of the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, spoke in favor of the bill.

"We need to begin to address taking the box out of applications," Stewart said. "The reentry population needs a fair chance to get a job and people should be judged based on their ability to do a job and not their past. We have worked it out in the public sector and now the private sector has to change."

District government statistics show that about 60,000 residents have criminal records. Each year, an estimated 8,000 residents return to the city after serving prison sentences and roughly 50 percent are incarcerated again within three years.

Debra Rowe, the acting executive director of Returning Citizens United Inc., said that oftentimes her constituents come back from being incarcerated into difficult situations.

"Many family members open their hearts and their arms to incarcerated family members but what they need is opened doors," Rowe said. "Because of the returning citizen has challenges in employment and other problems such as mental and emotional issues, that strains relations with family members and they are often asked to leave.

"Returning citizens are diligent about working and being responsible citizens, but too often it is the 'box' that prevents them from being employed," she said.

James White said he knows exactly what Rowe is talking about. White has been trying to find steady employment since he finished his probation for an unregistered firearm charge in 2004.

"Recently, I went to George Washington University to get a job in maintenance," said White, who lives in a transitional shelter in Northeast. "The lady in personnel watched me as I filled out the application. When I checked the box that indicated that I had a criminal record, she immediately took the application and said that I would not be hired."

White, who has stellar recommendations from staff members at Bread for the City in Southeast where he has participated in job programs, said that he is distraught about the incident.

"I was somehow too dangerous to clean floors," he said.

While most on hand supported the bill, Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, voiced her concern.

"While we do support the ban the box provisions, we think that some aspects of the bill are burdensome to small businesses," Hollinger said, arguing that small businesses will essentially have to use valuable time on paperwork to justify not hiring a returning citizen.

The bill could lead to businesses hiring people they do not want to avoid fines for non-compliance with the law, she said.

Rowe countered that Wells' legislation will not require a business to hire anyone but will give returning citizens a fair chance to be employed. She said that businesses will not be required to hire someone who has committed a crime in the arena in which the business specializes.