Generally speaking, a society that makes it easier for reformed lawbreakers to return to productive lives is the better and stronger and more prosperous for it. A bill getting a late start in the Colorado General Assembly seeks to bolster that observation through regulation that strikes us as reasonable — especially given the benefits that would follow.
House Bill 1305, touted by advocates as the Colorado Chance to Compete, would require employers to delay questions about criminal convictions and arrests until the second step of the hiring process. An earlier version of this effort surfaced last year and was known as Ban the Box. As with the name change, the intent of the new bill is to make it friendlier for business owners worried its implementation would harm the hiring process.
Under the language of this year’s bill, companies wouldn’t be able to say in job listings that those with criminal histories need not apply. Employers also would be prevented from including on their applications questions about convictions or arrests. The spirit of the prohibitions is simply to acknowledge that an otherwise qualified candidate trying to seek legitimate employment shouldn’t be automatically skipped over.
Those requirements met, employers may do all of the things employers already do. They can ask applicants about their criminal or arrest histories. They can conduct criminal background checks. HB 1305 would not override laws that prevent those with certain convictions from working in jobs whose convictions make them an unacceptable risk.
Also, Chance to Compete advocates included language meant to make clear that should the bill become law, its language could not be used to create a protected class of convicts that must be considered for employment. The bill makes clear that violation of its core limitations doesn’t count as evidence of discrimination.
Proponents point to studies that suggest that the criminal-histories stigma costs the nation’s gross domestic product tens of billions of dollars a year. They note that difficulty in getting a job is a key reason some who have completed prison sentences return to a life of crime. Many families, especially those with children, who have already dealt with a conviction are further harmed by companies that too quickly reject candidates with bad records. Given that about 1.5 million Coloradans have convictions in their past, the strain on the safety net for automatic rejections is likely substantial.
In recent years, many large companies — from Walmart to Target — have voluntarily dropped initial questions about past convictions. Nine states have laws that bar the questions at the first stage of the application process.
We get it that HB 1305 would add another layer of regulation for businesses and that, ideally, companies would opt for the change voluntarily. Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Business, says the bill would prove onerous to small-business owners and that its requirements aren’t necessary. But Gagliardi also says most small business owners — who often need to make hiring decisions quickly — already give applicants who check the box follow-up chances to explain. If that’s the case, then it would seem the Chance to Compete measure wouldn’t violate actual practice.
We like this measure, and hope to see it become law. It would seem backers may have waited too long this year to realize success. If so, that’s a shame. If HB 1305 doesn’t get traction this year, we hope advocates are prepared next year to try it again.
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