Employment Support For Ex-Convicts Again On NAACP Agenda

Oct 10, 2017

Officials with NAACP of Iowa are planning to try again next year to win protections for African-Americans who face barriers to employment after serving time in prison.    

The initiative known as Ban the Box would eliminate a common question on job applications about an applicant’s criminal history, while preserving the employer’s right to get that information later in the hiring process.  

Urban Dreams AmeriCorps Public Ally and returning citizen Joe Harrison
Credit Joyce Russell/IPR

Backers say ex-convicts who have paid their debt to society are too often turned away in the first round of screening regardless of their fitness for the job.  

David Walker with the NAACP Legal Redress Committee said opposition from private sector employers has blocked passage of Ban the Box bills in the past. He says this time they’ll offer a bill that would apply only to public sector employers, including cities, counties and commissions.  

“Our position this year is to follow the incremental approach that Minnesota adopted which is to seek fair chance employment comprehensively in the public sector,” Walker said, “and then to move in the subsequent year to reach the private sector with legislation.”

Walker spoke at the 5th Annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities which examine solutions to the disproportionate presence of minorities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

When is enough enough? - Kameron Middlebrooks, Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission

Joe Harrison served 20 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager. He faced obstacles to employment when he left prison.

“We say second chance, but the same opportunities aren't afforded to an ex-felon,” Harrison told the group.  “These issues are important for the people coming out.”

Some Iowa employers, including Principal Financial Group, already comply with the proposed legislation, avoiding the elimination of job applicants with a question on the initial application.

Summit on Justice and Disparities
Credit Joyce Russell/IPR

Principal’s Senior Compliance Consultant Lisa Haefner said employers should look at the job description, whether the crime was related, and how long ago the crime was committed.  

“Those are some of the variables that employers need to educate themselves on and take a look at before just eliminating someone from the applicant pool,” Haefner said.

“If they serve their time, if they pay their cost behind bars, or on parole, or on probation, who is the next person to say I got a little more punishment for you?” asked  Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commissioner Kameron Middlebrooks. "When is enough enough?"

Backers of the proposed bill say they are urging private industry not to fight it.     

“We've talked to some private employers,” Walker said.   “We’ve talked to the Association of Business and Industry.”