Convicted felons used to jam hearing rooms at the state Capitol. They told of being unable to get a job. A big reason was they seldom received an interview after filling out a job application.
One man with a criminal record, Joseph Shaw, told me being honest about arrests and convictions automatically sent his job applications into the trash bin.
Those with blemished records might now have a better chance at landing a job. That’s because a reform, spurred by a political movement, called Ban the Box is becoming law in New Mexico.
Starting Friday, private employers no longer will be able to ask about arrests or convictions on an initial job application.
Employers are free to dig into a job applicant’s criminal history at later stages of the selection process.
State Sen. Bill O’Neill co-sponsored the legislation, which will go on the books four years after he began advocating it.
“Having worked with individuals who were on parole, I learned what an enormous barrier the application process was,” said O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “People were eliminated from consideration immediately.”
Those who want to turn their lives around need to work. Applicants who get the chance to tell their story in front of an employer at least have a chance to be hired, O’Neill said.
He is one of the outspoken liberals in the Legislature. His co-sponsor on this bill, Republican Rep. Alonzo Baldonado of Los Lunas, is one of the more conservative lawmakers.
Both know people who wanted to make an honest living but couldn’t find work because of a criminal record. They hope changing the application process will help job-seekers and benefit taxpayers by curbing recidivism.
O’Neill, though, said the issue runs deeper than redemption.
“This affects a lot more people than ex-convicts. Even having an arrest could stop people from getting a job interview,” he said.
Legislators in 2010 approved a bill banning questions about criminal history on applications for state jobs.
O’Neill said he first believed it would be easy to extend this prohibition to private companies. He misjudged differences between a government with more than 20,000 employees and private businesses.
Facing significant opposition, the Ban the Box bill died in 2015. Then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who had been a prosecutor, vetoed the measure in 2017.
Resistance to the original bill was understandable.
Then-Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, headed a small law firm that didn’t use electronic or paper job applications. She said the first bill assumed every private business had a formal application system. Would her firm need to create job applications that didn’t include a box about an applicant’s criminal history?
Baldonado and O’Neill refined their bill. The version becoming law on Friday states that only employers who use paper or electronic job applications are initially prohibited from asking about arrests and convictions.
After all the editing they did, their final version of the bill didn’t generate much opposition.
In this year’s legislative session, the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry did not take a position on the bill.
“It was not a priority,” said Rob Black, president and chief executive officer of the organization.
Black said criminal justice reform had progressed enough for Ban the Box legislation to be viewed by many conservatives as an attempt to reduce repeat offenders. He became familiar with similar legislation years ago while working as vice president for public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
Not everybody with a troubled past will benefit from the new law.
Some people on probation or parole can’t wait to return to what they call “the game,” a life of drugs, dealing, stealing and danger. They will go broke or go back to prison. The measure by Baldonado and O’Neill won’t change their lives.
For others, the law might provide a foot in the door of an interview room.
And where there’s hope, there might also be a job.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.