As Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talks up a “second-chance society” for ex-cons, he could learn from a political nemesis about how to help former offenders land jobs by “banning the box.”
Malloy continued a statewide tour these past two weeks to promote a series of proposed “Second Chance Society” reforms he had unveiled at Yale Law School in February.
But it turns out that, at least in hiring interns, the Democratic governor’s administration is failing a test that even his party’s current number-one bogeymen, the right-wing Koch Brothers, have passed recently: refraining from asking some job-seekers in the initial screening if they have criminal pasts.
A form asks applicants for internships with Gov. Malloy’s Hartford office the question straight away: “Have you ever been arrested or convicted” of breaking the law? (Click here to view the application.)
Those able to check “no” may breeze right past.
Those with more complicated lives may find it cause for despair, convinced they will never make it to “hello” if they respond “yes.”
Either way, the question has no business being on the form, according to advocacy groups that helped get the law changed in Connecticut five years ago to block state officials from including it and similar showstoppers on initial job applications.
“It’s a violation of the law, because you’re not supposed to ask those questions” until the person has been deemed qualified for the job, said LaResse Harvey, former director of strategic relations for A Better Way Foundation. Her Connecticut-based, criminal justice group lobbied hard for the 2010 bill and did not let up until lawmakers overrode a veto that June by outgoing Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
The law, entitled “An Act Concerning Criminal Background Checks for Prospective State Employees,” made Connecticut one of the first half-dozen states to enact a “Ban the box” rule. It barred much of state government from asking potential hires or licensees about their criminal history at the outset, when detrimental information might quash an applicant’s ability to be judged first on skills and qualifications. “Ban the box” laws are part of a broader effort to help reintegrate ex-cons into society—a pressing issue in cities like New Haven, where an estimated 25 percent of inmates return to the streets each week.
Most of state government has since followed the law — with the apparent exception of Malloy’s office.
“If a kid wants to do an internship at the Capitol, that kid is trying to do something better with his life, and the thing with a criminal background check is it re-traumatizes the individual,’’ Harvey argued. “They have to relive some painful moments in their life and bad decisions. If they’re doing an internship, which means they’re probably in school trying to get a college degree, why would you care about their damn background?”
Raising such questions early in the conversation has become objectionable enough that 16 states now have “Ban the Box” laws binding their state governments, according to Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that looks out for workers’ rights.
Typically, the data that is deemed sensitive can be obtained later in the process, and the bans are not absolute. Connecticut, for instance, exempted its state police since they are hard-pressed to hire felons under any circumstances. (Curiously, Connecticut lawmakers also exempted themselves by applying the law to the executive and judicial branches, but not their own.)
Private Sector Steps In
Private-sector employers are subject to restrictions in only six of the 16 states that have laws on the books, and a handful of municipalities that have their own ordinances. Meanwhile, some companies have followed suit voluntarily, in ways few would have predicted.
Last week, for instance, the Koch Brothers — top funders of Republican candidates and right-wing causes — joined those way to their political left and announced that they had ordered all divisions of their Wichita-based, family-owned conglomerate to quit inquiring about criminal history in the initial screening of job candidates.
“As a large United States-based manufacturing company that employs 60,000 American workers, we shouldn’t be rejecting people at the very start of the hiring process who may otherwise be capable and qualified, and want an opportunity to work hard,” Koch Industries’ General Counsel Mark Holden explained in a press statement.
The gesture did not go unnoticed. “It’s helpful to have a corporation of that magnitude and conservative politics to elevate the issue like that because they could have done it without being super-public about it,’’ said Rodriguez of the National Employment Law Project. “That’s what Wal-Mart did in 2010. They did not make any public statement about it in the press.”
As the next chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Malloy will play a public role opposing Koch-funded candidates and causes.
Malloy’s official website bills the governor’s thrice-yearly internship program as a way for college students and new graduates to have “an opportunity to learn the inner workings” of state government.
His constituent services staff give prospective interns an opportunity to put their best foot forward by submitting a resume and cover letter along with their applications. But the bare-bones, three-page form they must fill out evinces less curiosity about candidates’ academic interests, hobbies or accomplishments than it does their moments of shame.
After eliciting a recitation by the applicant of any arrests and convictions, the second page focuses entirely on getting applicants to divulge if they have been the “subject of an active or pending criminal investigation;” whether any “disciplinary action” has ever been taken against them in their employment; and if there is anything else “in the past” that “could prevent you from acting in the best interest of the State or which could be an embarrassment to the State, to you or to the Governor’s Administration if disclosed?”
That question is practically asked twice.
The preoccupation with past mess-ups is all the more striking given the governor’s dogged stumping on behalf of former offenders who struggle to obtain the housing, employment and student loans they need to get back on track.
In Willimantic and Darien last week, and again on Tuesday in Middletown, Malloy pushed listeners to embrace his vision of a “Second Chance Society” that avoids treating offenders as “lifetime criminals” or permanent cast-offs.
In his remarks in Darien, delivered before dozens of lawyers at the Water’s Edge at Giovanni’s, he called for legal reforms and changes in hiring practices that would “make it easier for people, not to be permanently punished, but to turn their lives around,” and he lectured his audience on the need to do more for the disenfranchised.
“Unless you are a black person who can trace their people’s coming to the U.S. in slavery or a Native American,’’ he told them, “everyone else came to this country for a second chance. That’s who we are fundamentally. That’s one of the great strengths of our society for most of our existence.’’
Connecticut has to do better, he insisted, if it wants to turn around its troubled cities. “I’ll tell you, I’ve studied this, I’ve examined this,’’ he implored. “Even someone with records of a nonviolent nature, we make it impossible to get a decent job, to get decent housing. We make it hard to get a student loan.”
One thing he may not have studied sufficiently is the state’s own obligations to prospective hires.
‘No, Not Yet’
Asked by a reporter after the talk for the reaction to the Koch Brothers’ news, Malloy allowed that, “It’s not often that I agree with the Koch brothers,’’ but this is one time he does.
Asked if Connecticut might then follow suit, he indicated that he has been out in front on this issue for years given what he had accomplished as mayor of Stamford from 1995 to 2009. “I did that years ago in Stamford when we blocked the box,’’ he said, before cutting short the interview.
Pressed again a few minutes later to assess whether the state was where it ought to be on the issue, he said, with a note of regret in his voice, “Not yet, not yet,” and moved on.
Told about the conversation later, neither Harvey nor Rodriguez said they were surprised the governor seemed unaware — momentarily or not — that the state has had a “Ban the Box” law in place since the summer before he retook the governorship for the state Democrats.
His victory at the polls, in fact, came only days after the state retooled its application forms to comply with the new law.
Gone was the all-purpose “PLD-1,” which unapologetically asked job-seekers, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
Replacing it was the less inquisitive “CT-HR-12” and an addendum called the “CT-HR-13” that only some applicants would be asked to submit detailing “criminal convictions” and “pending” criminal charges.
No word as to why the governor’s staff used its own questionnaire for the internship program rather than steering applicants to the CT-HR-12, the customary form. The governor refused to take a question about it at Tuesday’s event, directing a reporter to submit questions in writing to his aides, who have yet to respond despite repeated follow-up requests for comment.
Stamford Record Questioned
His aides also ducked a request to back up the governor’s claim about his accomplishment in Stamford after it proved hard to pin down.
A search of the Stamford city government website reveals plenty of current listings for jobs from secretaries to lifeguards that press applicants for details about their criminal history, even while reassuring prospects that the revelations “will not necessarily” disqualify them.
Harvey, a leader in the statewide fight, said she was skeptical of the governor’s claim that life in Stamford might ever have been different in light of the complaints her organization regularly fields from city residents.
“We have Stamford parents asking us all the time for help with children who are getting caught up for small amounts of marijuana,’’ she said. “They say, ‘Now, my kid can’t get a job.’’’
Emmet Hibson, the director of Stamford’s human resources department up until February of last year, said “it was definitely not the practice” to hold off asking applicants about their criminal history when he arrived in Stamford in May 2010, shortly after Malloy’s mayoral years ended.
“There’s nothing formal in Stamford’s policy about Ban the Box,’’ he said. “There was no policy, there was no ordinance, no executive order on Ban the Box at any time that was in effect when I got there or that was enacted while I was there.”
He also noticed that the generic application form that Stamford appears to be using notes at the bottom that it was last revised in July 1, 2006. That would suggest that the city was asking people to disclose if they have “ever been convicted of any offense” when Malloy was mayor, much as it does today.
In Middletown on Tuesday, the governor called a press conference outside the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, where the state houses juvenile offenders at the staggering cost of $945 per child per night to inveigh against policies that he says lead to racial disparities in sentencing and recidivism.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do in the State of Connecticut is get it right,’’ he said.
He relayed a conversation he had with one teenager, near release, who was torn between getting a job or going to summer school to get credits needed to graduate.
“I cut a deal with him,” the governor reported. “I said, ‘Listen, look for a job. But if you don’t get it, make a promise that you’re going to get the credits,’ and he did.”
An internship in the governor’s office, on the other hand, might have proved a more difficult climb.