February 5, 2019

Another attempt to ‘ban the box’ hits the Roundhouse

Matthew Reichbach

The toughest question on a job application can be pretty short.

Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

For job seekers with criminal records, checking that box can make all the difference in landing an interview with a prospective employer.

Now, lawmakers are reviving a years-long effort to “ban the box” by prohibiting employers from asking about criminal convictions on an initial job application.

Even as crime has become a flash point between Republicans and Democrats, Senate Bill 96 is one idea that has rallied bipartisan support.

Sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, the bill would still allow employers to caution applicants that certain criminal records might be disqualifying. And it would still allow employers to ask about criminal history after interviewing applicants.

Advocates for the proposal say it would make all the difference by helping applicants with felony records land job interviews. That at least would give them a chance to make their case to a prospective employer.

“It just gives them an opportunity to get in the door, to say this is who I was, this is who I am now,” Joseph Shaw, director of Fathers Building Futures, told a Senate committee on Monday.

The organization helps fathers who have been incarcerated get job training and find work.

One of the most common questions they get from job seekers is how to speak with employers about criminal records.

Backers contend that taking down barriers to employment will help people with a criminal record find stable employment and, in turn, will prevent repeat offenses.

In an analysis of similar legislation, the New Mexico Sentencing Commission has said that arrests dim employment prospects more than any other factor.

And proponents say banning employers from asking about criminal convictions at the beginning of an application process has gotten results.

According to an analysis of the bill by legislative aides, the city of Durham, N.C., saw the percentage of new hires with criminal records go from 2.5 percent in 2011 to 15.5 percent in 2014, for example.

It is hardly a new concept for New Mexico.

Legislators approved a law in 2010 prohibiting the New Mexico government from asking about felony convictions on initial job applications, a measure sponsored by then-Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis.

Eleven states have extended such laws to private employers, according to the National Employment Law Project, which supports what it calls fair chance laws.

Some companies, perhaps most prominently the major retailer Target, have adopted similar policies on their own.

But while the idea has won support from Republicans and Democrats, it has had a bumpy path at the Capitol in recent years.

A similar bill only squeaked by the state Senate in 2015 by a vote of 22-20. It never made it out of the House of Representatives.

It passed with far broader support in 2017. But then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it, writing that the bill violated the rights of private employers.

The bill has repeatedly raised some of the more emotional testimony that legislators hear or offer.

“We are a nation that preaches redemption, but we don’t practice it,” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, told the Senate Judiciary Committee after testimony Monday.

Some members of the audience teared up recounting experiences of seeking work fruitlessly because of crimes committed long ago.

O’Neill said lawmakers have the will to pass the bill again this year, and he expects it will get more support from the new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.

This time the bill has the support of groups ranging from the ACLU to the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.

So, is this the year?

“I hope so,” Baldonado said.

A big question is whether the bill does what proponents hope.

As it is written now, for example, the law is not limited to felonies.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to tweak a few of these provisions when it takes up the bill again, likely on Wednesday.