2016 Is Shaping Up to Be Another Strong Year for Fair-Hiring Reform

In contrast to the growing rancor in Congress over criminal justice reform, states and localities around the country continue to find common ground on “ban the box” and other fair-chance hiring reforms. These policies challenge the debilitating stigma that plagues millions of Americans whose arrest or conviction records mean they struggle to find work. With its potential to help reverse decades of over-criminalization, few issues today have captured the imagination of state and local reformers quite like this one.

Map: State and Local Fair Chance Hiring Laws and Policies

[amcharts id=”Fair-Chance-Map”]


The ban-the-box movement—launched a decade ago by formerly incarcerated members of the national membership organization All of Us or None—grew at an exceptional pace in recent years and now covers 21 states and over 100 cities and counties. Many of these jurisdictions have not only delayed the conviction history inquiry until the end of the hiring process, they have also adopted fair standards to determine which offenses may disqualify a worker, along with appeal procedures that take into account rehabilitation and allow for challenging inaccurate records. Laying the groundwork for progress in 2016 is a remarkable record of wins in 2015:

  • Six more states (Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, New York, Virginia, and Vermont) embraced ban-the-box policies, four by executive action of their governors.
  • Oregon and several major cities (including New York City and Philadelphia) adopted new or enhanced laws that extend not just to government employers but to the private sector as well. By the end of 2015, seven states and 14 localities had adopted policies covering private employers.
  • With Georgia leading the way in early 2015, ban-the-box policies took hold in southern and politically conservative states, including Florida (where nearly every major city has adopted the policy, including Orlando, Tallahassee, Daytona Beach, Gainesville, and Fort Myers), Texas (where Dallas County did so by unanimous vote of the county board), and Arizona (where Tucson, Glendale, and Pima County adopted policies).

Based on early indications, 2016 is shaping up to be another strong year for fair-hiring reform, with governors, state legislatures, mayors, and local elected officials responding to their communities and taking up the call for ambitious reforms. Campaigns to limit criminal records inquiries by private employers are already well underway in Connecticut and Vermont; a private-employer bill is also anticipated in Colorado this year. More cities—including Los Angeles and Austin—are also considering private-employer ordinances this year. And over 40 foundations recently pledged to embrace fair-chance hiring policies in response to a challenge from the Executives’ Alliance, a national philanthropic network.

As for public employment, bills to ban the box from state job applications are currently under consideration in several states, including Florida, Utah, and Virginia. In addition, such a bill is pending in Missouri, where Governor Jay Nixon is also considering executive action to complement existing local laws in St. Louis, Columbia, and Kansas City. In Tennessee, two bills related to ban the box were recently sent to the governor’s desk. The first bill would remove criminal history questions from state government job applications, making Tennessee the 22nd state to ban the box. However, Governor Bill Haslam is expected to also sign a preemption bill that would prohibit local governments from requiring private employers to ban the box.

Two more states have already acted in 2016—Wisconsin and Oklahoma became the 20th and 21st states to ban the box. In Wisconsin, a ban-the-box policy was the one positive element of an otherwise deeply misguided and damaging bill that dismantled the state’s civil service worker protections. In Oklahoma, Republican Governor Mary Fallin removed the criminal records question from state job applications via executive order. Conservative state lawmakers may be increasingly receptive to such changes now that the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has endorsed the policy. With such broad acceptance, opportunity may finally exist to reach into southern states with particularly high rates of incarceration.

A ray of hope may still remain for meaningful federal action in 2016, especially if the states continue to make a compelling case for reform. President Obama’s announcement in November—that the administration will formalize its ban-the-box policy in regulation as applied to the federal hiring process—was a positive first step and also gave a big lift to the ban-the-box brand. The executive action fell short, however, of reaching the large workforce employed by federal contractors. Instead, the president called on Congress to enact the bipartisan-supported Fair Chance Act. But with timely federal legislation increasingly in doubt, there’s no reason to further delay executive action extending robust fair-chance hiring policies to federal contractors. Meanwhile, on the campaign trial, both Democratic candidates have pledged executive action applicable to federal contractors, and Senator Bernie Sanders has further remarked that he would do so within his first 100 days in office.

Beyond banning the box, states are tackling a range of fair-employment reforms that will go a long way toward opening jobs for people with records. For example, states like Pennsylvania are expanding their expungement regimes, and others, like Maryland and Illinois, are seeking to remove criminal history barriers in their state licensing laws. All told, 2016 promises to be another year to watch as reform-minded states and localities roll up their sleeves and take meaningful steps to restore opportunity for people with records and their families and communities.


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About the Authors

Beth Avery

Areas of expertise:
  • Criminal Records & Employment

Maurice Emsellem

Fair Chance Program Director, National Employment Law Project

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