A bipartisan bill in the Iowa Legislature could ban public employers from seeking past criminal history from job applicants.
House File 472, a “ban the box” bill introduced this week, would prohibit public employers from seeking criminal records or history from applicants, under certain circumstances. In addition, the bill — which does not apply to private employers — would establish a criminal history employment application task force.
Supporters of the bill — which include a mix of Democrats and Republicans — say it would help eliminate employment barriers for people with criminal records, potentially reduce recidivism among the state’s former offenders and provide economic benefits to the Iowa workforce.
“It’s a big deal because you’ve got a lot of stakeholders from different groups who traditionally have had competing interests and opposite ideological values,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said. “This type of legislation certainly removes barriers for individuals with criminal records and could increase the labor pool.”
Walker said discussion of ban-the-box legislation locally began years ago with Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force conversations.
That conversation aligned with justice reform and recidivism reduction efforts by Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, the political advocacy group backed by Charles and David Koch.
“I think there is a lot of truly bipartisan thought and relationship-building that is taking place under this umbrella of criminal justice reform,” said Drew Klein, state director with AFP in Iowa. “I think everybody from across the spectrum can find a reason, if not multiple reasons, why this is very important.”
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Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, who is pushing the bill with Rep. Mary Lynn Wolfe, D-Clinton, said in an email that it’s “about second chances” and essentially precludes a public employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until the interview process.
“Many who may be perfectly qualified for jobs have something in their past they may not be proud of — but they’ve served their time and are trying to get on with their life,” Hinson said in an email. “I think many people have come to realize the best chance to reduce recidivism and to help address our worker shortage issue are to come together on solutions.”
Such legislation is called “ban the box” because it would prohibit a box on job applications asking if candidates had criminal records.
According to a 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago report, which included focus groups in 13 Midwest cities including Cedar Rapids, found that economic inclusion benefits the health of regional and local economies.
The report also noted that economic exclusion creates disparities, largely along racial lines.
“Economic conditions for whites in these cities are uniformly better than those for blacks and Hispanics; unemployment rates are lower, poverty rates are lower, and incomes are higher, as are homeownership rates and educational attainment levels,” according to the report, which also noted labor force participation rates across all cities were comparable or higher for minority populations.
In 2016, a report by the Sentencing project — a national not-for-profit organization that advocates for a fair and effective criminal justice system — found Iowa had the fourth-most number of black inmates per capita in the country. That made for a ratio of 11.1 black prisoners for every one white prisoner.
“We already have these minority populations, so a small segment of people compared to the overall population, and we’re sort of over-criminalizing and over-prosecuting this population. Which then makes it really hard for them to get employment and get housing, which puts a major stressor on our social services apparatuses that government is responsible for,” Walker said.
“We’re sort of creating and reinforcing a new underclass of people by eliminating their social mobility by preventing them from even being interviewed for a job.”
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The bill should help those individuals with a criminal history from immediately being removed from the list of candidates.
“We recognize that nobody is truly as bad as they were on their worst day, we shouldn’t make decision on how we interact with everybody because of what exists in their past,” AFP’s Klein said.
Last summer, Linn County became the first in the state to ban the box for county government jobs. About one month later, Johnson County passed a similar resolution.
The National Employment Law Project, an organization that promotes job creation, expanded access to work and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed, in September reported that 33 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a ban-the-box policy.
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