Virginia Senate agrees to ‘ban the box’ asking job applicants about criminal history

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond

After two decades of pleas from criminal justice reform advocates, the Virginia Senate voted 24 to 16 on Friday to “ban the box” — to remove the checkbox on state employment application forms that asks applicants about their criminal history.

Democratic Sens. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg and Jennifer McClellan of Richmond sponsored the bill, SB 1199. Supporters included the advocacy group New Virginia Majority, which aims to “build power in working-class communities of color.”

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the group, said the bill could provide more opportunities to people who have committed crimes but served their time.

“Fair-chance policies like this benefit so many families and employers throughout the commonwealth. This bill is a step forward in establishing more equitable hiring practices that we want to see,” Nguyen said. “Employers should consider a candidate’s qualifications first without the stigma that comes with checking that box.”

Bobby Lee, a member of New Virginia Majority, said he is “overjoyed” with the Senate’s action.

“I got clean in 2007 and I have been on the right path ever since, but that box has held me back from being able to help other people,” Lee said. “I am a certified mental health and substance abuse professional. I got my voting rights back, I finished school, I was hopeful. And then job after job would never call me back.”

Lee said he applied to be a “peer recovery specialist” two years ago.

“When I interviewed for the job, I was told that I would’ve been hired on the spot if it weren’t for a conviction I received when I was 17 years old,” he said.

SB 1199 would prohibit state agencies from asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime early in the application process. Agencies could pose such questions only after the applicant has received a conditional offer of employment; the offer then could be withdrawn “if the applicant has a conviction record that directly relates to the duties and responsibilities of the position.”

The legislation would not apply to law enforcement jobs or certain other positions that require background checks.

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, where it has failed in the past.

By Corrine Fizer

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