When Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon “banned the box” for potential state employees, the Show Me State joined a nationwide trend aimed at helping ex-offenders move back into the workforce.
His executive order would remove application questions about criminal history for most state jobs.
There are exceptions for positions where a criminal conviction is disqualifying, such as a bank examiner. “Ban the box” doesn’t necessarily mean that a person’s criminal history won’t come up in the hiring process — it just wouldn’t be placed on a job application.
'The box' refers to check box on many job application forms that is to be marked by applicants who have a criminal record.
Proponents of “ban the box” contend that criminal history application questions work against ex-offenders finding work. Both progressive and conservative politicians have embraced the policy to help keep people who have served time in jail out of jail. (For instance: “Ban the Box” has been strongly embraced by groups like Empower Missouri and the Koch Brothers as well as several GOP governors.)
“Without jobs, former offenders are more likely to become homeless, revert to old patterns of drug abuse and criminal activity. Work can and will change that,” Nixon said at a newss conference in Downtown St. Louis. “Gainful employment is a key factor in promoting rehabilitation and the successful reintegration of former offenders. It’s simple: People who are working are less likely to commit crimes. They’re less likely to return to prison. And they’re more likely to become productive contributing members of societies.”
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said Nixon’s executive order provides a “second chance” to thousands of potential employees looking for work — and not just in the urban parts of the state.
“What we’re dealing with in the city of St. Louis in terms of drugs or the drug epidemic, it’s now finding itself a home in the rural areas,” said Nasheed, D-St. Louis. “The heroin epidemic is extremely high right now in the outstate areas. They’re starting to see so many of their young kids who addicted to drugs and get caught with felony charges need that second chance as well.”
The executive order could help people like Toni Jordan, who spent time in jail more than a decade ago for stealing. She’s part of a group called Let’s Start that provides assistance to women who served time in prison.
She said she wouldn’t be surprised if more private companies voluntarily embraced “ban the box.”
“Once you get your little step in the door, then you’re getting people to come in so the door’s opening wider,” Jordan said. “Because there’s some great people out there with a great wealth of knowledge and great skills that they can offer these different organizations and companies that they could utilize. I would just ask that they give us a chance.”
Not waiting around
Nasheed has sponsored legislation applying “ban the box” to private companies. Nixon, though, said that he didn’t wait on the legislature to act – especially since state government employs tens of thousands of people.
“There have been legislative efforts in the past in both the private and the public sector that have not made it to the finish line,” Nixon said. “I’m not sure whether they will this year or not. But I wasn’t going to wait on history to get here. … Whatever happens legislatively happens. But as the CEO of a workforce of over 50,000, I think it strengthens our state. I think it strengthens opportunity for people who want to turn their lives around. And I think it gives us more applicants for important jobs.”
State Rep. Michael Butler said he had a campaign aide who declined to even apply for jobs because of the question about his criminal history. He said “the box” can be a barrier for ex-offenders to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families.
“And that box prevents them from feeding their families and from feeding themselves,” Butler said. “Because of the governor, we now have an executive that said ‘no more’ in the state of Missouri. We will not have that box anymore. And I ask all the executives out there in the state of Missouri: Take the governor’s lead. Ban the box in your own organizations and your own companies, and we can solve this problem once and for all.”
But Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, told St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin that he doubted the legislature would expand "ban the box" to private businesses.
"You know, I think that’s a dangerous precedent," Richard said. "I understand that as something for public employees, but I would hate to do that in my own business. I might be able to swallow it for public (employees), but I wouldn’t want to do that for my own company.”
For now, Nixon says state agencies will begin removing questions asking applicants if they’ve been convicted of a felon or if they’ve spent in jail.
“I think what it’s going to do is open up a much wider pool of talent to choose the important jobs serving the public,” Nixon said. “And I think it will help strengthen both our economy as well as our state.”