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Oregon Campaign To Help Ex-Convicts Seeks To “Ban The Box”

Remember the last job application you filled out? Chances are there was a box on that form asking you to check it if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. For tens of millions of Americans, that box can be an insurmountable barrier to gaining employment.

Now, a national campaign has come to Oregon that seeks to prevent employers from using that box on job applications. 

Emmanuel Price was 19 years old and had just finished his sophomore year in college when he was imprisoned after committing an armed robbery. He served 4-and-a-half years in Oregon prisons before being released. That was more than ten years ago. Now 37, Price says re-entering society has been difficult. 

Emmanuel Price:  “Even though this crime was 19 years in my past, it still haunts me to this day.”

Price says even after he continued his education and trained in conflict resolution, he found his criminal record held him back.

Emmanuel Price: “I would oftentimes fill out applications for jobs or housing and as soon as I turned my application in, I could read the body language and I could see the look on their face and I could knew I would not either one, get that job or get that apartment. And that repeated itself for ten years over.”

Price is founder of a Portland-based non-profit called Second Chances Are For Everyone, which advocates for and offers support to ex-offenders.

He was testifying before a legislative committee in Salem that’s considering a bill that would prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. A coalition of advocacy groups and organized labor is backing the so-called “Ban The Box” bill.

Alex Budd is an organizer for Oregon Action in Medford. He says employers do have a legitimate right to know about an applicant’s criminal history. But, he says …

Alex Budd: “Right now that’s being used as a screening tool by employers and by landlords where any application that comes up that has that box checked just gets thrown out right away.”

The “Ban The Box” bill would require employers to wait till they make a job offer before asking that question. Budd says that gives ex-offenders a chance to put their criminal history in context.

Alex Budd: “I made some bad choices. I’ve since gone back to school or been working for 10 years straight. I have a family and I haven’t had any problems and I’ve really rehabilitated myself … That’s not a story you can tell by checking a box.”

At the legislative hearing in Salem on the “Ban The Box” bill, Democratic Representative Carla Piluso – a former police chief – stressed that for society to cut off access to employment and housing for ex-offenders is self-defeating.

Carla Piluso: “When people with prior convictions and arrests are continually denied the opportunity to even interview for employment, let alone be offered a job, we are instead pushing them back toward their past criminal life.”

The “Ban The Box” bill would not bar criminal background checks for law enforcement, banking or other types of jobs where they’re currently required by law.

Several representatives of business groups at the hearing said they could support the idea of removing the box from job applications. But they have concerns about elements of the bill that could leave employers who choose not to hire someone with a record liable to legal action. Jan Meekcoms is with the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Jan Meekcoms: “It would be preferable for the state to use a carrot and not a club to entice employers to hire someone with a conviction record.”

J.L Wilson, with the Oregon Chamber of Commerce, pointed to a provision in the bill that would allow applicants rejected because of their record to appeal to the state, unless their offense was “job-related.”

J.L. Wilson: “Criminal history with regard to multiple convictions calls into question patterns of behavior that employers might not want in the workplace and yet they might not be ‘job-related.’”

The bill’s supporters say 14 states and more than 100 local jurisdictions have passed some version of a “Ban the Box” law. The Portland City Council is currently considering a similar ordinance.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.