Bill would ‘ban the box’ during hiring process for S.C. state government jobs
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - When Lester Young of Columbia was released from prison after serving 22 years, he was ready to find a job and begin the next chapter of his life outside incarceration.
But Young said he couldn’t get hired after employers took a look at his criminal record.
“It was kind of discouraging to walk out of prison and ready to go to work and start your life over, and people are telling you you are not good enough to work for them,” he said. “It was not that you couldn’t do the job but because you had a felony conviction.”
Charleston’s Keith Smalls said he faced a “psychological disadvantage” while going through the hiring process after his 2015 release, deterred early on when applications asked about his criminal record, and he too faced roadblocks to gaining long-term employment.
Smalls finally secured a position as a client advocate with MUSC’s hospital violence intervention program, but only after tragedy.
“Losing a son to gun violence a year after my release — my 17-year-old son was then murdered by a 15-year-old — created circumstances for me that opened doors that were shut based on my lived experienced and being a returning citizen,” he said.
Smalls and Young came to the State House in Columbia on Thursday to testify in support of a bill they believe will help other returning citizens once they have served their time.
“Now, I’m a homeowner. At 50-years-old, I bought my first house because a company like Tyson Foods gave me an opportunity,” Young — now a Senior Movement and Capacity Building Specialist for JustLeadershipUSA, an organization that works for criminal and juvenile justice reform — told members of a Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee.
The “Workforce Opportunity Act,” would prohibit the state and its agencies from asking about a person’s criminal history or record when they are applying for a job until they have gotten an interview or a conditional job offer, a practice commonly known as “banning the box.”
It would also bar the state from disqualifying someone from a government job based solely on their criminal record, unless the crime directly relates to the job for which they are applying.
The Department of Corrections would be exempt from these restrictions.
Smalls and Young said the state government implementing this practice for its own jobs could set the tone for private companies to do the same.
“When the government puts it in place, I think that should be telling and kind of encouraging for businesses to believe that this is something they should follow the lead on as well,” Smalls said.
This bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson of Richland County, also lays out the process for what the employer needs to do when they deny someone a job because of a prior criminal conviction, including giving them the reason in writing and disclosing the earliest date they can apply again.
South Carolina currently boasts the nation’s lowest recidivism rate at 19%, according to state corrections officials, meaning four out of five inmates do not return to prison within three years of their release.
Supporters say enacting this measure would strengthen those efforts.
“Branding them with a scarlet letter of a criminal record after they have already completed their sentence is not only unjust; it effectively makes reincarceration more likely,” Shirene Hansotia, the South Carolina site director for the re-entry advocacy organization Root & Rebound, testified.
Lawmakers’ consideration of the bill comes as more than 100,000 jobs across South Carolina remain unfilled.
Supporters argued this could help fill open jobs, as state agencies, like so many other employers in South Carolina, are having trouble finding workers.
“You’ve got a pool of men and women who are out there and need a job. And I say, how do you solve that problem? It’s start hiring those with felony convictions,” Young said.
Senators on the subcommittee did not vote on advancing the bill after its first hearing Thursday.
The panel’s chair, Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield County, said while he supports the general idea of this bill, he has some concerns, including liability for state agencies.
“One of the most frequent claims of negligence has to do with negligent hiring,” Massey said. " … If a state entity complies with this, I don’t want them to be sued for negligent hiring.”
Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D – Williamsburg, said he backs the bill but did not know how to address Massey’s concerns about negligent hiring.
“Because it’s out there already. I mean, you and I see it without this law being in place,” Sabb responded.
The subcommittee delayed a vote on the bill until senators could work out those details, with Massey saying he intends to bring it back at a later date.
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