AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage last year vetoed a measure to bar the state from asking most job seekers about criminal convictions on the applications they initially submit.
With LePage no longer an obstacle, legislators are eyeing the same bill as one way to help formerly incarcerated Mainers overcome their pasts.
The so-called “Ban the Box” proposal, adopted in at least 30 states, would prohibit the state from putting a check-box on most job applications asking candidates about criminal history.
Doing so would allow more applicants with criminal histories to make it past the initial weeding-out process and give them the chance to make the case that their record should not disqualify them from the position.
“Having the question of criminal history on the initial application often means the applicant will never be considered for the position,” Wilton resident Jan Collins told a legislative committee this week. “The application will not get a second look.”
Taking the question off the application would allow an opportunity to get to know the person who is applying, she said on behalf of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. It opens the door, she said, “to a larger conversation about job suitability, experience, and successful rehabilitation.”
It’s an idea for which the Legislature has already shown support. Last year, the same bill passed the Senate by a 30-2 margin and twice won majorities in the House, with an 81-61 tally the closest margin.
The measure allows applications for some jobs to continue asking about criminal history. For instance, anyone seeking to become a state trooper would have to answer the question because those with past convictions are not eligible for the position.
The bill would not apply to job applications with local governments or private employers, though some states have taken that step.
Peter Lehman, a founding member of the prisoner advocacy coalition, urged the Committee on State and Local Government to endorse the proposal, which matches the wording of one LePage shot down in July 2018.
“The first time I came to Thomaston, where I now live, was 21 years ago,” Lehman said. “I was in shackles en route to the old prison. I had made some serious mistakes and was paying the consequences.”
“What I hadn’t realized was that I had received a life sentence,” Lehman said.
Lehman said Friday that he is ashamed of “a series of mistakes” he made when he was young that landed him a five-year stint in prison. They remain, he said, “a present part of my life.”
In the years since, he said, he put in “a lot of very hard recovery work” to become a professional sociologist and criminologist with a doctorate degree.
“There are many of us in long-term recovery,” he told lawmakers. “All we ask is that you look beyond the labels and stereotypes. This bill is designed to help you do that.”
He said he has continued to advocate for prisoners after serving his five-year sentence because “there is no one to speak for these men and women.”
They need a chance to move on with their lives, he said.
Advocates point to a handful of studies that lend support to the position that abolishing the criminal conviction on job applications leads to more opportunity for former prisoners.
A 2014 study in Durham, North Carolina found the change helped “dismantle the structural discrimination faced by people with records in the employment market.”
Supporters said that postponing consideration of criminal pasts gives those who were once incarcerated a chance to explain what they’ve done to overcome an obvious problem.
Asking about convictions on applications serves “as a screen that artificially weeds out qualified workers when employers ignore applications with the checked box, despite the applicant’s skills and qualifications or how relevant the conviction is to the position being applied for,” said Adam Goode, the legislative and political director for the Maine AFL-CIO.
“A fair-chance policy benefits people who work to provide for their families and their employers through ensuring a fairer decision-making process by considering how related the conviction is to the job at hand, the amount of time passed and evidence of rehabilitation,” he told legislators.
Making the change would also help alleviate racial imbalances in hiring.
Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, told lawmakers that using criminal history to exclude some from consideration for jobs “removes qualified and motivated applicants of all races and colors from the workforce, but it also perpetuates racism.”
“Because our nation’s criminal justice system disproportionately polices, arrests and convicts African-Americans and persons of color as compared to Caucasians by many orders of magnitude,” she said, “asking about the existence of criminal history on an employment application has a disparate impact on persons of color.”
When he vetoed the bill last year, LePage said he supports “hiring outside the box” and urged employers to “consider a wider range of candidates” to fill positions, including people with criminal convictions.
LePage said, though, that he could not endorse “taking the steps toward making individuals with criminal convictions a protected class and adding another layer of complexity to the hiring process.”
Moreover, the former governor said, changing state job application forms would require changes and updates to computer systems and programs that would cost Maine taxpayers.
Holly Pomelow, the acting director of the Maine Bureau of Human Resources, testified this week, however, that the cost of making the change would be minimal.
The only New England states that haven’t passed “Ban the Box” legislation are Maine and New Hampshire.
Three New England state — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut — have gone a step further than the one Maine is eyeing. They have also barred private employers from asking about criminal records on job applications. Many large companies, including Walmart, have adopted the same policy voluntarily.
Among the legislators supporting the bill are Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn, and Sens. Nate Libby of Lewiston and Shenna Bellows of Manchester, both Democrats.
Maine’s standard employment application for a state job includes a section asking prospective employees about any criminal history. A bill before the Legislature would drop the section from most state employment forms.
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