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.