Back in 2003, a group of formerly-incarcerated people got together in San Francisco to share how their criminal history records were putting up barriers in their lives—and how to overcome them. At the top of their long list was jobs.
They all experienced the humiliation of confronting the question “Have you been convicted of a crime?” on an employment application and having it thrown away when they checked the box. The experience was—and is—alienating.
Their proposed solution was modest, but it seemed nearly impossible to achieve at the time. All they asked was that the box be removed from the initial employment application, so that they’d be given an opportunity to see a human being and explain how they have changed, how they are no longer the person defined by their record.
Fast forward a decade. With All of Us or None (AOUON) championing it, “Ban the Box” is recommended as a best policy by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is now the law in over 55 jurisdictions across the nation, including the State of California. AB 218, California’s new law, goes into effect on July 1, 2014, moving the box to the back of the hiring process—after all minimum job qualifications have been considered —for state, county, and city jobs.
At the end of 2013, AOUON members got together in South Los Angeles to celebrate the passage AB 218 and discussed how to further overcome employment barriers erected because of criminal records. Their experiences have shown that, even when the question of prior criminal conviction criminal box is moved back, they’re still denied employment when their background check comes back.
After months of deliberation, taking into consideration lessons from relevant existing laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act, and Fair Credit Reporting Act, AOUON endorsed a set of proposals now called “Fair Employment and Housing Policy Proposal,” which addresses irrational biases against the formerly incarcerated or convicted people in employment and housing.
If enacted, the proposal will outlaw all criminal history background checks that cannot be justified by a real business necessity and require an advance notice of which offenses will be potentially disqualifying—in both employment and housing—backed by a private right of action for enforcement against private entities.
Starting in 2014, AOUON members have been meeting with local elected officials, looking to pass a municipal ordinance that extends AB 218 to private businesses and landlords. To their delight, they have found strong supporters in city halls—including in the City of Long Beach, where Councilmembers Steven Neal and Dee Andrews expressed support for AOUON’s proposal in its entirety. Community-based groups, faith-based organizations, and labor are also joining the growing coalition to support the Fair Employment & Housing Policy proposal. We’ve come a long way in just 10 years.
What is truly remarkable is that this decade-long Ban the Box campaign has always been rooted in lived experiences of the formerly incarcerated or convicted people—the very people that our society expects to remain silent as stigmatized outcasts. How to address the problem of systematic discrimination against formerly incarcerated people does not (and, in fact, cannot) come from lawyers, academics, or other experts, because they do not share the experience and perspective so necessary to humanize the problem of mass incarceration.
So, as they have for the past 10 years, formerly incarcerated and convicted people are stepping up to offer a solution of their own that is rooted in their lived experiences. They are actively participating in the democratic process—as all citizens should—even when the society they live in would rather that they remain silent. Regardless of where one stands on AOUON’s Fair Employment & Housing Policy and regardless of whether the policy passes in Los Angeles or Long Beach, we should all celebrate their participation as active and invested members of our community.
Joshua E. Kim