“I speak to you today with great gravity and heaviness of heart,” Kitsap County citizen Deighton Boyce said as he began his emotional testimony to lawmakers. He told a story about growing up in poverty, being exposed to violence at a young age, and following in his father’s footsteps as a drug dealer. Since then he has shed his past and is raising a son with his wife. Both of them volunteer for social work in their community. But, he told lawmakers, his criminal record keeps him from getting steady employment.
“I believe that once a person serves their time and pays their debt to society, they should be allowed the same rights and access to opportunities of success as the rest of society,” Boyce said.
Boyce made this remarks last year during the first hearing for House Bill 1298, which would prohibit criminal history questions on job applications. On Feb. 7, the bill passed the Washington state House of Representatives with a 52-46 vote along party lines, with Republicans largely against it.
HB 1298, also called the ‘Ban the Box’ bill or the ‘Fair Chance Act’ prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after the employer has determined the applicant meets the minimum requirements for the job. This includes the check-a-box question about criminal history on job applications.
“This bill is about jobs and opportunity,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Mukilteo), the bill’s prime sponsor, during floor debate last Wednesday. “It’s been said that America is the land of second chances, but unfortunately for many people with a criminal record, that second chance doesn’t exist.”
Rep. Morgan Irwin (R-Enumclaw) said he supports the bill’s overall goals, but there needs to be a middle ground. He pointed out that the House is considering HB 2208, which expands criminal background check requirements for current and potential state employees and contractors.
“Here we are allowing the state to expand background checks, but we’re telling private employers that they will have no such ability to do that,” Irwin said.
However, under HB 1298, employers still have the right to turn down an applicant upon receiving their criminal history after an interview. The bill also includes exemptions for employers who hire people to work with children or vulnerable adults and employers who are required to run background checks by state or federal laws. The latter includes state government jobs, law enforcement, and criminal justice agencies.
Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-Kitsap) said the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable populations.
Bob Cooper, speaking for the Washington Defender Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at the bill’s hearing a year ago, said the current criminal record box on applications lumps someone who committed a crime of vandalism together with a violent offender.
Rep. Irwin, during the floor debate on Wednesday, said that is precisely the problem. Lumping offenders into a single category with no distinction of the severity of the crime can be harmful, he said, adding that there should be a way to distinguish felonies from misdemeanors, but eliminating the box entirely is not the right answer.
Nick Federici, lobbyist for Pioneer Human Services, said at the bill’s 2017 hearing that banning the criminal records question would help people get jobs, thereby greatly reduces recidivism.
“It’s next to impossible to get your life back on track if you can’t get decent work,” Federici said.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 30 states currently ban the criminal history box on applications. Local cities and certain companies also ban the box on their own.
Eric Schallon, forestry operations manager at Green Diamond Resources, said the ban on criminal history disclosure in an application is working for his company with no increased crime within the workplace. He also said that as a conservative, he doesn’t want to keep paying for people to stay in prison, emphasizing the opportunity for people to pull their own weight and not rely on state resources as they re-enter society.
If the bill is passed, an employer who violates the provision would get a warning and would be offered assistance in implementing the new policy. The company could face a fine up to $750 for a second violation, and up to $1,000 for a third.
This is an edited version of a report produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.