A new state law that bars employers from using job applications to ask about applicants’ past crimes “removes one of the most impactful and challenging barriers” to having released inmates rejoin Maine’s workforce, the state’s corrections commissioner said.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, former warden of the Maine State Prison, told legislators the measure, signed into law this month by Gov. Janet Mills, should give the more than 1,000 individuals released from custody each year a better shot at steering clear of criminal activity in the future.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Rachel Talbott Ross, a Portland Democrat, is part of a national movement to “ban the box” on employment applications that asks prospective workers if they have a criminal record. Backers have pushed for passage in Maine for years.

Although the new law does not prevent employers from asking questions about convictions later in the interview process advocates said giving former prisoners a chance to talk about their past – along with their skills – will give more of them a chance to find work.

Whether “ban the box” legislation helps those with criminal records is unclear.

A study by University of California Berkeley researcher Evan Rose, published in the Journal of Labor Economics in January, examined the impact of a 2013 measure in Seattle and found barring employers from asking about criminal history on applications “had negligible impacts on ex-offenders labor market outcomes.”

Another study by the University of Chicago, published last year in the same journal, suggested the measure might even be counterproductive in some cases. It found a 5 percent decline in the probability of employment “for young, low-skilled black men” after jurisdictions banned the box.

Supporters, however, said the new law “advances equity in the job search process, where individuals can be judged for who they are in person, rather than who they are on paper,” as Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, told legislators in April.

Emerson Lee Noddin of Lewiston, who works with the Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, said when people are freed by the corrections system, they worry most about housing, but employment is their next biggest concern.

“The last thing they need is the huge stumbling block created when they have to click the box that identifies them as a criminal,” Noddin told legislators.

Give them a chance to talk to employers, he said, and they will be judged on their “sincerity and capabilities,” rather than on past mistakes, Noddin said.

There will be exceptions allowed under the new law, including applications for jobs for which state or federal law disqualifies those with criminal convictions or mandates employers conduct criminal history reviews.

Curtis Picard, who heads the Retail Association of Maine, told lawmakers most large retailers have already removed criminal history questions from their job applications. Picard said many employers, however, still ask about criminal records during the interview.

But, Picard said, having a record “does not automatically disqualify someone from employment,” because employers “like to have the discussion to learn the circumstances of the situation and make a decision based on that conversation.”

Given many employers “are very much in need of employees” in the wake of the pandemic, Picard said, “they are being incredibly flexible” and willing to work with prospective employees.

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