Senators once again proved there may be room for bipartisanship when it comes to criminal justice issues, with one panel advancing a measure to "ban the box" in the federal government.
The "ban the box" campaign refers to a movement to prohibit employees from requesting criminal history information early on during the hiring process — or eliminating the box on an application an applicant must check if he or she has a criminal history. Advocates say this change would help ex-offenders in the job process, and assist their transition back into society. "Because they’ve got to check that box, they never even get an interview for a job," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday. "So that’s a pretty small, little measure that says at least for federal employment and for federal contractors, we’re going to give those individuals a fair chance of at least getting an interview."
Johnson chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, which approved the bill, known as the "Fair Chance Act," by voice vote Wednesday. Johnson co-sponsored the bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and a handful of other senators from both sides of the aisle. This bill would prohibit all three branches of government from requesting an applicant's criminal history until the employer is prepared to hire the applicant.
After the markup, Johnson was optimistic the bill would head to the Senate floor. Asked if he has discussed the bill with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Johnson responded, "I don’t think we’re going to have a problem, quite honestly." Johnson predicted the bill would be fast-tracked through the Senate and combined with the House version.
If the federal government approves the legislation, it would be a major success for the campaign, which has scored victories in several cities and states. According to the Ban the Box campaign website, 45 cities and counties and seven states have removed criminal history questions from employment applications.
In addition to prohibiting the federal government from initially requesting criminal history information, the bill would also prevent federal contractors from doing the same. But the bill does include some exceptions, including for law enforcement and national security positions. The bill also requires the agencies including the U.S. Census Bureau, Labor Department and Bureau of Justice Statistics to develop a report detailing employment of ex-offenders.
And the committee's bipartisan approval contributes to the notion that members on both sides of the aisle can find some common ground on criminal justice issues.
Last week, Republican and Democratic senators announced a bill to overhaul sentencing in a rare show of bipartisanship in the often gridlocked Congress.
"It bridges the ideological divide in this country," Johnson said of criminal justice issues. "As I said, we all want to see every American succeed. That’s a goal we all share. So if we concentrate on those shared goals, those shared purposes, there’s actually a way to come to accommodation, to identify a problem."
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