Public Safety & Justice

Baltimore May Ban Criminal History Question on Job Applications

Baltimore may become only the sixth city to "ban the box" to prevent companies from asking prospective employees about their criminal background early on in the application process.
by | April 3, 2014
Baltimore Councilman Nick Mosby (left), the lead sponsor of the "ban the box" bill, at a rally in 2013. Photograph By Carde Cornish

This story was last updated April 15, 2014.

Baltimore may soon join four states and five cities that prohibit private employers from asking about criminal history on initial job applications. The proposal being considered in Baltimore is part of a national trend to reduce prisoner recidivism by eliminating barriers to employment. “It removes any implicit bias that employers might have against someone with a past record,” said Councilman Nick Mosby, the bill’s lead sponsor.

About 65 million Americans, more than one in four adults, have a criminal record, which is an obstacle in getting hired. That's a problem anywhere, but especially in a city like Baltimore, which has an unemployment rate well above the national average. “[Employers] are looking to weed out people because of the volume of the applications they’re getting. This is a way to do that,” said Maurice Emsellem, a program director at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group in support of bills like Mosby’s.

As the country's incarceration rate grew about 13 percent between 2000 and 2012, city and state policymakers became concerned with both the rising prison population and what would happen when people returned to their communities. Would they commit another crime? Would they end up back in prison? Some governments sought to minimize people's likelihood of re-offending by lowering barriers to employment. 

Since 1998, a growing number of state and local governments around the country have prohibited asking job applicants about their criminal history. Because the policy means removing a box that people check on job applications, advocates call it “banning the box.” This year, ban-the-box legislation is pending in at least seven states: Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nebraska, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida. At least 10 states and almost 60 municipalities have some kind of ban-the-box law, according to National Employment Law Project.

In a preliminary vote, the Baltimore city council passed its ban-the-box bill unanimously March 10, but then decided to delay a final vote, which is now scheduled for April 28. Mosby said he anticipates that some council members will vote against the bill next week because of pressure from the business community. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has not taken a position on the bill, though an anonymous aide in the mayor’s office told The Baltimore Sun the mayor would sign the legislation if it reached her desk.

If Baltimore passes the bill, it would be part of a recent trend to expand the hiring protections to people applying for jobs with private employers. At least five cities currently prohibit private employers from asking about criminal history early in the application process: San Francisco, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and Newark, N.J.. Another few cities have a policy that applies to companies that contract with the city government, such as Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

The policies do allow an employer to ask about applicants' criminal history eventually, but only after the first stage in the application process. Mosby’s proposal is unusual in that it requires that private employers wait to ask about criminal history until they make a conditional job offer.

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