Shumlin bans criminal background question on state job applications

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed an executive order Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed an executive order Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday scrapped a state job application question that asked applicants if they have a criminal background or a conviction.

The current application asks job seekers to tick a box on an application if they have a criminal background. Shumlin says eliminating the question will give applicants a chance tell their story to a potential employer, instead of automatically ending up in a discard pile.

Shumlin signed an executive order that removed the question from the first round of job applications.

According to Maribeth Spellman, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, between 8 and 9 percent of applicants for positions with the state in fiscal year 2014 ticked the box. That year, the state received 49,000 applications for about 800 new positions.

The state will be reconfiguring the online application so the question is no longer part of the initial materials that applicants submit.

Sherry Papineau, a 47-year-old single mother of three, who was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from a domestic violence case explained how the simple application change could help her prospects for getting a job with the state.

“I had never been arrested before, I haven’t been arrested since, and I really didn’t know what the implications of that were going to be at the time,” Papineau said. “This has followed me around and made it incredibly difficult to find work.”

Papineau has been looking for work full time since October, she said, applying for positions in retail and housekeeping. She applied for a job with the state and went in for an interview — only to find out that the state was in the midst of a hiring freeze.

T.J. Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, said at the press conference that the criminal justice system does not always consider the “long-term consequences” of convictions for minor crimes, like petty theft.

“Many times we don’t consider what that scarlet letter of that conviction is going to do to folks, three, five years, 10 years down the road,” Donovan said.

Several other states, including Nebraska and Virginia, already have “banned the box.”

Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, who chairs the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said that her committee is reviewing a bill that would ban the question about criminal background from the first round of job applications in the private sector.

She said the bill, H.121, arrived in committee too late in the session to take it up, but said that there will likely be discussion about it in future.

Shumlin stated, “I would hope that by the state leading by example that many private employers might adopt the same policy.”

Chris Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid, said after the press conference that he hopes lawmakers follow through with legislation that would eliminate the question for job applications in the private sector. Several large retailers, like Target and Walmart, have already removed the box from their applications.

“I think it’s a great first step,” Curtis said.

A criminal background is also a barrier to public housing, Curtis said. Traffic violations are a significant challenge for low-income Vermonters. When people can’t afford to pay traffic fines, the situation can “snowball,” putting them at risk of criminal charges, he said.

Last month, Donovan held an event in Chittenden County that allowed people to pay off traffic fines at a reduced rate.

Suzi Wizowaty of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform applauded the removal of the question from the state application and said she also hopes private employers follow suit.

“Do we want a permanent underclass of unemployed people?” she asked.

Wizowaty hopes the Legislature will make other reforms to the criminal justice system, including increasing the threshold for felony charges from $900 to $3,000 and prohibiting reincarceration for technical parole violations.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is closing in on a bill that would expedite the availability of expungement from an individual’s record for certain offenses.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, who sponsored the bill, was behind the legislation in 2011 that first established Vermont’s policy to allow individuals to wipe their records clean of certain minor crimes and arrests.

The House made an amendment to the bill, S.115, that would loosen requirements if the person looking to expunge their record committed the crimes before they were 25. The Senate voted to hold a conference committee on the bill, but Benning expects the legislation will pass by the end of the session.


Correction: This article previously misstated that S.115 broadens the crimes eligible for expungement. 

Elizabeth Hewitt

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation. If you have questions or concerns about our commenting platform, please review our Commenting FAQ.

Privacy policy
  • Wendy Wilton

    It is commonly known that VT has a fraud problem, with one of greatest number of incidents per capita–possibly the highest–among the states. The state itself has had serious fraud problems with a few employees and local governments have had truly damaging experiences along with the private sector. We would invite those with criminal backgrounds to be hired by the state? Many positions in state government are positions of trust re: the state’s spending or other assets (like equipment).
    I understand giving people second chances depending on the nature of the offense vs. the job they are seeking. But given that the governor is seeking to reduce the state’s labor force, why would this be wise, unless the state pairs it with a thorough background check.

    • We can’t lump or label everyone with a criminal record as being fraudsters or unworthy of holding a state or other job. Many are convicted felons from non-violent crimes related to mental health and substance abuse challenges that have nothing to do with ever stealing or defrauding anyone.

      We have to look at this differently if we are to be successful at transitioning our correctional system from being factories that churn out repeat offenders to positioning those who have paid their debt to society with a chance to be contributing members of society upon their release.

  • Ed Fisher

    Once there was an incentive for younger people to Not break any laws , once that is, back when those who did break laws were actually punished and suffered the civil consequences of their illegal actions , Now anyone with a record can join the rest of the of rule breakers within Montpelier ?

    • Al Smith

      What incentives do you refer to? The prison population has only increased in recent decades so it certainly cant be a lack of punishment.

    • Paul Lorenzini

      Even the kids that broke no laws, and took on the burden of an Ivory Tower “education”, have little opportunity. please continue…..

      • Paul Lorenzini

        allow me….

        The incentive is , you won’t get a beating.

  • This is an important Executive Order by Governor Shumlin and he deserves credit for this.

    Additionally, organizations in Vermont including the Windham Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) ban anyone who has a felony conviction in the last 5 years from applying for housing or being the roommate of another tenant. These are felonies resulting from mental health and substance abuse including alcoholism. All non-violent crimes which only adds to the challenges for those released from state custody as they seek to rebuild there lives.

    Gov. Shumlin’s Executive Order is a good first step but more needs to be done to advocate for our inmates and ensure they are given the tools to be productive members of society. At present, Vermonters are actively discriminating against those who have a paid their debt to society but have a criminal record. We can do better.

    Thomas Joseph
    Twitter: relator_joseph

  • Robert Appel

    This is a very positive first step in providing persons who made mistakes in their lives (and who hasn’t) an opportunity to be considered on their present merit not on their history. Vermont should “ban the box” not only on employment applications but on rental housing applications as well. If an employer or a landlord has doubts about a person’s qualifications, they can obtain criminal record information on persons they are seriously considering for openings, either from the applicant or from the VT Criminal Information Center. The “scarlet letter” immensely impedes successful rehabilitation and reintegration.

    • Neil Johnson

      We do need reform, but it’s not how you think. State and large corporations, those with good paying jobs will not give them a job, they can afford and do serious background checks, same for large housing projects. It’s the little guy that will give them a chance. Have you every hired a convicted felon? Some work and some don’t hear are the problems, the “safe guards” make it too risky to hire one. 1) You have to be insured and go through payroll if you pay anyone more than $600. 2) They can be high risk, intentionally getting hurt on job, theft, difficult when fired for just cause. Have you had to deal with false firing claims? Enjoy your trip through the system I was on my way to Supreme Court with one employee. 3)Housing, you can take a risk but you can’t get them out easily. If there was a no fault, look no rent leave in 30 days, it would be fair. No way an average person can take the risk, $,1,000 of dollars. 4) Self employed, need to have one years worth of insurance paid up front. There are many, many difficulties to rehabilitation, it’s not the application that’s the big one…..

      or is the administration having trouble getting their special picks in for office? 🙂

  • Pam Ladds

    This is an important piece of legislation. If we truly believe in Restitution or Restorative Justice or any kind of Justice system then it is important to allow opportunities for people to move on with their lives. And consider adding to this by removing the section from job applications that demands a credit check.. For the majority of jobs this has no relevance whatsoever, and with high unemployment is yet another source of humiliation.

  • Stephanie Jackson

    This is a first step a long time in the making. We must become a society that allows for people to overcome their past and rejoin the ranks of productive community members. Just because someone has broken the law, does not mean they are unredeemable and should never be given a chance. This does not mean that employers will not have the opportunity to run a background check – most will still do that. It is an opportunity for a Vermonter to explain their criminal background and be given a chance.

    It puts the humanity back into the employment picture. Thank you Governor Shumlin.

  • jason Wells

    I despise almost everything this Governor has done but this is good news. Do the crime and do the time but when you walk out those gates it should be a new day no exceptions.

  • Joyce Travers

    I understand that people make mistakes and that there are even a few that want to turn their lives around. But what is Shumlin doing for those of us who have not broken the law? I’m being laid off at the end of May, I am a senior and if you don’t believe there is age discrimination out there – you need to get your head out of the sand! I guess if you want to survive in VT you need to be an ex-con or drug user – they seem to get all the breaks. What’s the message are you sending Mr. Shumlin?

  • Glenn Thompson

    There is a reason why employers ask the question and do background checks! That being said, I’d leave the box, but rephrase the question to this!

    “Have you ever been convicted of a FELONY as an ADULT?”

  • Ed Letourneau

    Seniors are choosing what they have to give up to pay the taxes this state demands. Now we will get to pay taxes to support losers who have state jobs. — What’s in the water in Montpelier?

  • Dave Bellini

    Glenn is correct. The question should ask if someone has a FELONY conviction. This would be a reasonable compromise. We don’t want murderers, rapists, child molesters, drug pushers or violent offenders. Why pretend. We also need to be careful about financial crimes. The state should also require a pre-employment drug screen. Addicts are not good employees.

  • aula DeWitt

    I agree that the question on the form is not worded as well as it might be. Removal of the question does allow a person an opportunity to discuss what happened. Removal of the question will not, however, stop the required background checks for many State jobs.

  • Christopher Curtis

    Our entire criminal justice system cries out for reform. Vermonters should demand rehabilitation, not simply incarceration.

    It is foolhardy to think that Vermonters who commit crimes can return to society without serious investments in education, job training, and ensuring transitional housing and other supports for offenders re-entering society.

    Robert Appel is absolutely correct that “ban the box” should also apply to public housing. Collateral consequences should be reviewed top to bottom, expungement made more available to qualified individuals.

    Even felony criteria should be reviewed. For example, the threshold for the felony count of “grand larceny” is theft of $900 or more. It’s punishable by 10 years in jail or $5,000 fine (or both). Criminal justice reform is not about condoning behavior, it’s about reconciliation and finding ways to make whole society when someone tears the fabric – both at the penalty phase, but also to make sure society benefits when someone has paid their debt or is returned to the community. Simple insistence on pure punishment or retribution fails to consider whether (or if) society benefits at all upon satisfaction of judgment or re-entry.

    Vermont can do better.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Sure, Shummy or the legislature can “ban the box” for state job applications but as an earlier poster said: “it is a good FIRST STEP”. There is already discussion about forcing the private sector to cease from asking the question on an application. The next step after that will be to consider convicted criminals a “protected class” who cannot be discriminated against for jobs, loans, housing etc. I’m sure some exceptions will be made for boutique businesses such as day care centers and schools to allow them to keep certain criminals from being hired. However, we must “do the right thing” by preserving the rights of convicted embezzlers to continue to keep books for others. This sounds like just the policy Vermont needs to continue our slide into the economic and moral abyss.
    It’s interesting to see Shummy reinvent himself and shamelessly pander in the face of his dwindling support from the hard Left.

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Shumlin bans criminal background question on state job applications"