Legal Aid Testifies on “Ban the Box” Bill, Stresses Need for Housing Protections
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Yesterday, I testified on behalf of Legal Aid at a hearing on D.C. Council Bill 20-462, the “Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014.” Legal Aid agrees with and strongly supports the Bill’s goal—to remove barriers to gainful employment of formerly incarcerated individuals. It is a step in the right direction. But we also urged the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which held the hearing, to amend and significantly strengthen the Bill in many of the ways offered by our sister organizations, other advocates, and community members who testified yesterday.

Legal Aid focused its comments in particular on the need to extend similar protections for individuals with arrest or conviction records in the housing context. Specifically, we requested that the Committee consider including provisions that would limit the ability of housing providers to inquire about and consider a prospective tenant’s criminal background, except where doing so is expressly required or permitted by law.

The Fair Criminal Record Screening Act, introduced on January 7, 2014, would “Ban the Box” on employment applications, putting an end to the discriminatory practice of automatically disqualifying returning citizens based solely on their history with the criminal justice system. It would also outright forbid employers from considering any arrests that do not result in a conviction and limit the ability of an employer to inquire about or consider an applicant’s criminal convictions until after a “conditional offer” is made, at which point the employer may only withdraw that offer if it issues a statement setting forth the “legitimate business reason” why the applicant’s criminal background makes him or her unsuited for the position.

Over the course of the last several legislative sessions, Legal Aid has been working closely with a number of other organizations in the District to urge the Council to adopt stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of an individual’s history with the criminal justice system in the employment and housing context. Over a year ago, Legal Aid submitted written testimony when the Council considered the Re-entry Facilitation Amendment Act of 2012. Since then, through current legislative session, we also have continued to work with our partners (in a group loosely known as the “Ban the Box” Coalition) seeking to convince the Council to extend the protections further.

In the written testimony we submitted yesterday, Legal Aid stated that removing barriers to employment is critical to the successful reintegration of individuals with criminal records. But we also stressed that removing similar barriers to securing stable housing is equally if not more important. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that unstable housing is the greatest predictor of whether an individual with a criminal record will reoffend, engage or re-engage in substance abuse, be unable to secure employment, and end up homeless. The amendments we are seeking are about giving individuals who have a criminal record a fair shot at obtaining housing in the District of Columbia and helping them get back on their feet.

We look forward to the opportunity to continue to work with the Council to make these opportunities a reality for everyone.

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