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 on job applications: Yes, I have been convicted of a crime.
“Ban the Box” is an effort to remove the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” from job applications, and it 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 the bill made it to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s desk, but he vetoed it without explanation.
At that time, the Safer Foundation, a 40-year-old organization focusing 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 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, 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.”
Sweig added, “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 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, 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 and 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 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.