Ban The Box: What This New Law Means For Potential Employees With A Criminal Record A law in California took effect preventing companies from requiring job applicants to disclose criminal histories. NPR's Lakshmi Singh talks with National Employment Law Project attorney Beth Avery.


Ban The Box: What This New Law Means For Potential Employees With A Criminal Record

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Let's turn now to an issue that affects roughly 70 million Americans - people convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. This is a group that studies show are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding work. A new law in California hopes to fix that problem. It's known as ban-the-box legislation. The box refers to the section in job applications that potential employees check if they have a criminal record.

To learn more about why people want to ban the box, I spoke to Beth Avery. She's a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, a workers' rights group. She helped draft the California legislation, and I asked her to explain why she thinks this legislation will make a difference.

BETH AVERY: It's hard to get a good picture of exactly the increase of how many people with records are hired because that assumes employers are collecting that data before and after the laws go into effect. But we have some evidence from local governments like Durham County, N.C., D.C., then San Francisco that saw increases in the number of people with records hired after the laws went into effect. The fact that the problem exists, though, is hard to debate. Studies show that when a person checks the box on an initial application, their likelihood of a callback drops by half if they're a white applicant and to almost a third if they're a person of color.

SINGH: So, Beth, it's just important to note - I just want to make sure we're clear - that this isn't legislation about barring an employer from actually doing that background check to find out if there is a conviction. It delays the process so that applicants, candidates have a far better shot at getting a position than they would now.

AVERY: That's exactly correct, Lakshmi. It's about a job applicant being viewed as a person, as a worker with qualifications and not just as a checkbox on an application. It really comes down to the dignity of people with records and how it feels and how much it impacts their lives to be turned away at step one when they submit application after application.

SINGH: Beth, some businesses, particularly small businesses, argue that the law would be costly for them, that hiring is expensive. They have expressed fear of lawsuits by rejected applicants and sort of liability if an employee commits a crime in the workplace. Would you agree that these are valid concerns?

AVERY: For the most part, they're a bit overstated. You know, it really won't change the application process for the most part. Lots of employers across the country have already adopted these processes. Employers across the country have adopted them voluntarily, and they have had good experiences and haven't found that it slows down their application processes.

And the second part of your question about, you know, threats of litigation, those lawsuits are incredibly hard to prove. And I'll also state that, you know, employers will still retain discretion over who they're hiring. If they are worried that a person that they meet has a conviction that relates to the job, then they can deny that person the job.

SINGH: So we know the law could profoundly change the lives of former convicts, but what does the general public stand to gain from this?

AVERY: It's important to remember that this is an issue that affects all of us. Seventy million people across the United States have an arrest or conviction record. These aren't your stereotype of a, quote, unquote, "criminal." These are our community members, our family members. Some estimates put it as nearly half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a record.

So this is holding back our next generation of U.S. citizens and their ability to succeed. It also affects our economy overall. When people with records can't reach their full potential, can't work, it holds back our economy. And some estimates put that as affecting our GDP by $78 to $87 billion per year.

SINGH: That's Beth Avery. She is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Beth, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AVERY: Thanks again for having me.

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