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Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 6, 2017, 12:32 pm

Calif. Just Passed Landmark Law to Stop Bosses From Discriminating Against People with Convictions

BY Michael Arria

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California passed one of the strongest laws aimed at prohibiting employment discrimination against formerly-incarcerated workers. (alexskopje / shutterstock.com)  

In an important victory for formerly-incarcerated workers fighting employment discrimination, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1008 into law on October 14, establishing some of the strongest “Ban the Box” legislation in the country. Brown’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. “Banning the Box” removes this question from applications, requiring businesses to assess the job-seekers’ criminal background only after the individual’s qualifications have been considered.

Under AB 1008, or the California Fair Chance Act, restrictions on employers’ criminal background checks have been extended to private companies. This means that, as of January 1, 2018, no California business with five or more employees will be allowed to ask about or consider an applicant’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.)

LSPC’s Communications Director Mark Fujiwara spoke with In These Times about the bill. Formerly incarcerated himself, Fujiwara emphasized that his group’s organizing was primarily led by individuals who had spent time in prison—and have experienced the system firsthand. “Having 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,” he said.

Sandra Johnson is another formerly incarcerated member of LSPC who was on the frontlines of California’s “Ban the Box” fight, testifying during hearings and advocating to legislators. She told In These Times that she was fired from her job of six years after her former employer accused her of concealing her conviction history. “It was devastating,” she told In These Times, “I don’t want anyone else to feel what I felt.”

AB 1008 also received a visibility boost from high-profile supporters like the musician John Legend. About a month before its passage, Legend wrote a letter to Governor Brown calling on him to act on the issue. “For too long, these men and women have been defined by the worst moments of their lives,” Legend wrote. “They 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.”

“Ban the Box” 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. That’s roughly 8 million people statewide. “The old approach didn’t serve any of us well,” NELP staff attorney Phil Hernandez told In These Times. “When 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 law—which aims to give people with records a fair chance at employment—will ultimately benefit all of us.”

NELP studies also show how restrictive hiring practices have a devastating impact on children and families. Almost half 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 Obama endorsed 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.

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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