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Advocates argue in favor of ‘Ban the Box’ bill

Attorneys, social workers, ex-cons and former addicts advocated at the Suffolk County Legislature last Wednesday for passage of the “Second Chance” law, which would eliminate a box on job applications that asks about criminal history.

The law, also referred to as “Ban the Box” or “Fair Chance Act,” would prohibit applications from including questions asking if applicants have ever been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a criminal offense. The goal is to “prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing,” according to the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Halim Kaygisiz of Middle Island, a former convict who spent 17 years in prison, spoke to legislators about a friend who was unable to obtain employment after serving 20 years on a manslaughter charge. Application after application would get discarded, he said, because of the box — until one employer’s application didn’t include the box.

“He got a job making $18 an hour after spending over 20 years in prison,” Mr. Kaygisiz said. “He would be here tonight, but he’s actually working overtime … He is someone [who is] using the system to help him gain his self-sustainability.”

According to the resolution, one in three Americans has a criminal record and three-quarters of the U.S. population lives in a jurisdiction that follows a “ban the box” mentality. Suffolk County has the state’s largest parole population, representing people with at least one felony conviction, according to the resolution. The resolution further states that “disclosing an arrest or conviction on a job application reduces the likelihood of being called for an interview by 50%” — or 90% for minorities, according to NAACP Long Island regional director Tracey Edwards.

“I’m going to share with you a title that really struck me, of an article, and the title is: ‘65 million need not apply,’ ” said Carly Sommers of Oakdale, an attorney at Nassau-Suffolk Law Services. “The reason for this title is because companies routinely deny individuals with a criminal record an opportunity to establish job qualifications. I work in our re-entry project, so I work with individuals on probation [and] parole, and in Suffolk County we have a few treatment cohorts … This is not about removing the question of a criminal record, it’s about when you can ask about a criminal record.”

The roughly 20 people who spoke delivered a shared message: Helping former convicts obtain gainful employment reduces crime and recidivism, helps them become contributing citizens and helps them in terms of rehabilitation and re-acclimation into society.

A number of legislators expressed support for the bill, but some were concerned that the amended version puts too much responsibility on the employer. The current version would require employers to wait until after an initial interview to inquire about an applicant’s arrest or conviction record. And when hiring decisions are made, an employer must provide applicants who were not selected with documentation indicating how they “formed the basis for an adverse action.” In addition, employers must hold the position open for seven business days to give those applicants time to respond to the documentation.

Legislator Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) called this requirement “senseless,” saying employers will never admit that they chose not to hire someone based on their record. She said her children have no criminal records, yet they, too, struggle with finding employment and are never notified as to why they weren’t chosen.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Ms. Edwards. “It’s not a political issue. You can’t fund all the programs that you all fund for community benefit, the Department of Labor, the youth programs, all of the job fairs that you have and then not support this. It’s ridiculous … There’s 33 states that already have this in. There’s 150 municipalities … This has been too long. Suffolk County is no different than everywhere else. Everyone else has got it done and you need to get it done, too.”

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