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

Michael Arria November 6, 2017

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 is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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