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Alexandra M. Schwappach/MEDILL

Advocates of Ban the Bill have tried to have the question"Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" removed from job applications.

Looking for a job? Hope you don’t have any prior convictions

by Alexandra M. Schwappach
June 08, 2011

Text for the Executive Order for Move the Box

Click here.

Imagine you are looking for a job. Imagine you’re motivated, inspired and ready to give it your all. Imagine you cannot wait to start fresh in a new career.  

Then imagine you are denied, even before your application is completely reviewed.

All too often this is the case for ex-offenders who put a check in a box of job applications: Yes, I have been convicted of a crime.

“Ban the Box,” an effort to remove the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime” from job applications, has succeeded in several states. But Illinois has been slow to make the proposal a reality.  
Several attempts to get the bill through the legislature have failed. One time thebill made it to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s desk but he vetoed it without explanation.

During that time, the Safer Foundation, a 40-year-old organization that focuses on employment for ex-offenders, participated in the initiative with  the group’s then-public policy liaison, Michael Sweig.

One of the reasons Sweig thinks the proposal has not been passed, he said, is because the legislature hasn’t been educated about the bill.

"Legislators mistake the bill for wanting to hide something," he said.

Instead, he said, the proposal is meant to keep an applicant's criminal history separate from the application process until the candidate is seriously considered for the position.

Another reason it hasn’t become reality in Illinois yet has to do with the broadness of the proposal, he said. One of the most recent proposals, called the Certificate of Rehabilitation Bill, was passed because it more narrowly defined which ex-offenders were eligible for the rehabilitation.

Sweig said, “My view is Ban the Box bill was too broad because it didn't similarly track the eligibility exclusions in the Certificate of Rehabilitation Bill, and there is not a policy reason why move the box should be broader. There needs to be that kind of consistency."

Sweig, founder of the Institute for People with Criminal Records, also said the term “Ban the Box” doesn’t accurately portray the meaning of the proposal.

“The term Move the Box is more accurate,” he said. “Ban the Box is an unfortunate misnomer nationwide, and in my view is at the root of mistaken legislator perceptions of the bill's intent and operation.”

He said, “Now that it's failed three times in the legislature, the only way for it to become a law is by executive order," he said. "And I think the governor will be receptive to the bill."

Sweig intends to pursue work with this initiative. He said he plans to meet with the governor's policy people before the next legislative session.

"This topic needs to be discussed seriously," he said.

Advocates of the bill have long believed in its worth.  

“Job applicants who have to check that box know immediately that they won’t be considered for that job,” said Veronica Cunningham, the Safer Foundation’s vice president of public relations. “They lose hope when they see that box.”

Safer said she believes that the issue of prior convictions for job applicants should be dealt with at a later time in the employment process. 

“There are a lot of laws that create barriers for ex-offenders,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been trying to champion this for the past few years.”

Hope Larkin, a graduate of A Safe Haven Foundation who served time at Lincoln Correctional Center, said though her current employer is well aware of her background, other employers throw away or delete applications where people have checked off that they have a prior conviction.

“It’s really disheartening to them,” she said. “It makes them think they have no hope, which is just another reason for them to fall back into their old ways.”

It’s not fair for people who have paid the price for their crime to be denied something that they have a right to pursue, Larkin said.

“Employers should be able to say: ‘Well you screwed up seven years ago, so you can’t have this job,’” she said. Larkin said it is her hope that someday the world can be rid of the negative stereotypes that often accompany people who have prior convictions.

“People need to understand that it can happen to anyone at anytime,” she said. “Because if you saw me on the street you would never guess where I’ve been. But as soon as you know, your opinion of me is going to change in a negative way.”

Kathy Murray, a Washington, D.C., journalist who works with offenders, said it’s unfortunate that so many capable people never have the ability to show their skills because of their background.

“I’ve met too many ex-offenders who have great skills and have done the hard work of rebuilding their lives,” she said. “But they never even get a chance to tell an employer.”

Murray has worked with inmates and recently released offenders. She said her classes work best when taught to ex-offenders right after their release, as it’s wise for them to put their job search skills to use immediately.

“Too often as a society we're unrealistic,” Murray said.  “We don't want people to reoffend and yet we punish them in perpetuity, by denying them jobs for which they're qualified because of their record even years after the fact.”

Murray said withholding jobs from otherwise capable people creates a permanent underclass which is forced to live in the margins.

“It would be naive to expect everyone to turn their life around,” she said. “But my experience has been that more would do it if given a chance.”