Editor’s note: This commentary is by T.J. Donovan, the state’s attorney for Chittenden County and a candidate for Vermont attorney general.
The best form of public safety is a good job. Vermonters should be able to find employment opportunities without being disqualified because they made poor decisions earlier in their lives that led to a criminal conviction. The “Ban the Box” campaign seeks to allow all Americans to move beyond their past by prohibiting inquiries about criminal records on an initial employment application. Allowing a job applicant to initially demonstrate his or her qualifications without having to overcome the often automatic stigma of a criminal record can positively impact our economy and facilitate our collective goal of reducing criminal recidivism.
Equal access to employment opportunities represents one of the best and most economical ways for Vermont to lower recidivism rates by allowing Vermonters who have paid their debts to society to make contributions on the positive side of our social ledger through productive activities that benefit their communities and our state. The automatic elimination of individuals with convictions in the preliminary stages of the employment process reinforces negative stereotypes without an opportunity for individualized inquiry.
We will never be successful in our rehabilitation efforts if a person who has been in the corrections system cannot get a good job. Many Vermonters have been convicted of non-violent crimes involving property or drugs, such as possession of narcotics and low-level crimes such as theft. Individuals who have served their sentences deserve the opportunity to explain their mistakes to employers, the circumstances of their criminal history and the lessons learned from their mistakes. No one is saying that those with a criminal history should receive preferential treatment in the hiring process, but neither should they be unduly or unnecessarily prejudiced when we have the opportunity to give everyone a fair chance.
Moreover, there is a real danger that a refusal to consider someone simply because of a criminal record may serve as a tool for racial discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recognized that early job application inquiries into a criminal record may serve as an effective proxy for racial discrimination. President Obama has issued an executive order to delay inquiries into criminal arrest and conviction histories and, in 2015, the state of Vermont banned the box for applicants to certain state government positions, joining at least 15 other states with similar laws. This is an important reason supporting the elimination of preliminary inquiries into criminal records on job applications.
House Bill 261 has passed both the Vermont House and Senate and the governor is expected to sign the bill into law. I applaud the Legislature and the governor for supporting this bill which provides an equitable, economic and just approach to ensuring that every Vermonter has a fair chance to obtain gainful employment based on their merits.