In an important victory for formerly-incarcerated workers fighting employment discrimination, Calif. Gov.Â Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1008 into law on October 14, establishing some of the strongest â€śBan the Boxâ€ť legislation in the country. Brownâ€™s signature can be attributed to tireless organizing on the part of formerly incarcerated individuals and their advocates.
One of the biggest challenges facing people returning from prison is employment. Many jobs require applicants to check a box if they have ever been convicted of a crime, but offer no opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest. Employers often disregard formerly incarcerated individuals, regardless of their given situation. â€śBanning the Boxâ€ť removes this question from applications, requiring businesses to assess the job-seekersâ€™ criminal background only after the individualâ€™s qualifications have been considered.
Under AB 1008, or the California Fair Chance Act, restrictions on employersâ€™ criminal background checks have been extended to private companies. This means that, as of January 1, 2018, no California business withÂ five or more employeesÂ will be allowed to ask about or consider an applicantâ€™s conviction history before an employment decision is made.
The legislative victory is the culmination of a fight that has lasted more 14 years, as the grassroots organizing project All of Us or None started the campaign during the early 2000s. All of Us or None sprung out of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC.)
LSPCâ€™s Communications Director Mark Fujiwara spoke withÂ In These TimesÂ about the bill. Formerly incarcerated himself, Fujiwara emphasized that his groupâ€™s organizing was primarily led by individuals who had spent time in prisonâ€”and have experienced the system firsthand. â€śHaving a grassroots organizing project like All of Us or None is key to creating a sense of community and empowerment for directly-impacted people and our families, as every aspect of the prison industrial complex is designed to separate and isolate people,â€ť he said.
Sandra Johnson is another formerly incarcerated member of LSPC who was on the frontlines of Californiaâ€™s â€śBan the Boxâ€ť fight, testifying during hearings and advocating to legislators. She toldÂ In These TimesÂ that she was fired from her job of six years after her former employer accused her of concealing her conviction history. â€śIt was devastating,â€ť she toldÂ In These Times,Â â€śI donâ€™t want anyone else to feel what I felt.â€ť
AB 1008 also received a visibility boost from high-profile supporters like the musician John Legend. About a month before its passage, Legend wrote aÂ letterÂ to Governor Brown calling on him to act on the issue. â€śFor too long, these men and women have been defined by the worst moments of their lives,â€ť Legend wrote. â€śThey have been stigmatized, even after paying their debt to society, and? ?they? ?have? ?seen how? ?a? ?criminal? ?record? ?takes? ?a? ?wrecking? ?ball? ?to? ?future? ?employment.â€ť
â€śBan the Boxâ€ť legislation is particularly important in California. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), nearly one out of every three California adults has an arrest or conviction on their record. Thatâ€™s roughly 8 million people statewide. â€śThe old approach didnâ€™t serve any of us well,â€ť NELP staff attorney Phil Hernandez toldÂ In These Times. â€śWhen 8 million people across the state are effectively shut out of employment, that shrinks the economy, undermines public safety, and harms families and communities. For those reasons, this new lawâ€”which aims to give people with records a fair chance at employmentâ€”will ultimately benefit all of us.â€ť
NELPÂ studiesÂ also show how restrictive hiring practices have a devastating impact on children and families. AlmostÂ halfÂ of U.S. children have at least one parent with a record. According to a survey with family members of formerly incarcerated individuals, 68 percent said that those who were parents had trouble paying child support after being released from prison. One study of formerly incarcerated women revealed that 65 percent of them were relying on a family member for financial support.
The fair hiring movement has gained considerable steam in recent years. AB 1008 makes California the 10th state to ban the box for public and private sector workers. Twenty-nine states now ban the box for public employees, and five of them have done so this year: Utah, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. In 2015, President ObamaÂ endorsedÂ the practice for federal employees. There are also increasing efforts to extend ban the box policies to colleges. In June, Louisiana became the first state to block public universities from asking applicants about their criminal history.
This article was originally published at In These Times on November 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:Â Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria