The Oregon AFL-CIO is joining with civil rights groups to launch a campaign to bar employers and landlords from asking applicants about their criminal records on applications. Advocates will push the City of Portland to pass an ordinance later this year, and they’ll lobby for a state law in the 2015 session of the Oregon Legislature. The effort is part of a national campaign to “ban the box,” and the labor support follows a September 2013 resolution by the national AFL-CIO that criticized America’s system of mass incarceration.
The United States now imprisons more people than any other country on earth — 2.3 million. The population behind bars has more than quadrupled since 1980, thanks in large part to the “war on drugs” and mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Orange may be the new black, as the title of the hit Netflix TV series suggests, but very few inmates are rich and white. Prison is something experienced disproportionately by poor and working people, and by minorities. That’s because, when they make bad choices amid hard circumstances, they’re unable to afford the best lawyers.
“We know that our criminal justice system isn’t just,” said Oregon AFL-CIO spokesperson Elana Guiney. “People who have money can afford to get themselves off the hook.”
And the racial disparity in sentencing is undeniable, Guiney said. Today 1 out of every 106 adult white males is incarcerated, compared to 1 in 36 for Hispanics, and 1 in 15 for blacks.
“We are in a system that promotes mass incarceration, and larger and larger numbers of people have to deal with the consequences,” says Midge Purcell, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the Urban League of Portland. Urban League, an advocacy and service organization for the African-American community, is taking the lead on the ban the box campaign in Portland.
The ban the box movement is about what happens after prison. The sentence may have been served, but the punishment continues. Prisoners may be released jobless and homeless, and be required by the terms of their release to find a job and housing, and yet face overt and legal discrimination by employers and landlords.
Employers and landlords use the “have you ever been convicted …” question on applications to enable blanket rejection of ex-convicts — without considering the circumstances of the crime, how long ago it was committed, or even if the type of crime is relevant. Studies show that those who answer truthfully that they’ve been convicted of a crime get callbacks less than half as often as equally qualified applicants.
Civil rights advocates say post-release discrimination compounds the economic harm to ex-convicts and their families, and leads to greater recidivism.
But a reform movement is gaining momentum. The Portland campaign is part of a wave of ban-the-box legislation appearing before state legislatures and city councils in 2014. At least six cities now prohibit private employers from asking about criminal history early in the application process: Baltimore, Newark, San Francisco, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
In Portland, more than 40 groups have endorsed the campaign so far, including four labor organizations: Oregon AFL-CIO, Northwest Oregon Labor Council, Roofers Local 49, and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555. Oregon AFL-CIO field organizer Jess Giannettino is reaching out to other local labor unions to support the campaign.
The campaign is training speakers, putting together a speakers bureau, and, with support from the Oregon Bus Project, gathering signatures on a petition.
“We think [the signature campaign] will show the depth of feeling in the community around employment and housing discrimination for people with previous arrest records and convictions,” Purcell said. “We’ll also use it as an organizing tool to talk to people in the community about this issue.”
Ban the box advocates are drawing up draft language for what they’re calling the “Fair Chance for All” ordinance. The ordinance would allow applicants to explain their previous convictions at the interview stage, if they’ve been deemed otherwise qualified. Employers could still ask for a criminal background check, but they couldn’t ask about it on the initial job application, and they would not be allowed to deny applicants solely based on their criminal convictions unless they determine that there is a direct relationship between an applicant’s criminal history and a particular job. Landlords, meanwhile, couldn’t reject an applicant based on a criminal record unless they determine that an applicant poses a threat to other tenants. The ordinance would not override any law that bars people with certain convictions from working in particular occupations, such as caring for children or the elderly, handling financial transactions, or commercial driving. To encourage employers and landlords to consider people with criminal records, the ordinance would clear them of any legal liability if they later commit a crime. The ordinance would apply to establishments with five or more employees.
The campaign will hold a community forum July 15 at 6 p.m. at Highland Church, 7600 NE Glisan St., and advocates are particularly encouraging those impacted by post-sentencing discrimination to attend.
[Click here for more information about the Fair Chance for All campaign, or to sign the petition or become an endorser.]