WASHINGTON — James White had steeled himself for the moment. But when he got to the question on the job application — Have you ever been convicted of a crime? — he shifted nervously in his seat.
If he checked the “yes” box, he would almost certainly not get the job as a hospital janitor.
He checked the box.
A moment later, a human resources employee looking over his shoulder told him not to bother with the rest of the form. “She said I should stop right there, that there was no need to continue filling out the application because I was done with the process,” he said.
Mr. White, convicted of possessing a handgun without a license 10 years ago, is one of the 60,000 people with a criminal record who live in Washington, and who, along with the 8,000 city residents who are released from prison each year, have a difficult time finding decent jobs.
To ease these residents’ re-entry into society, Washington’s City Council this summer approved legislation that forbids asking about criminal history on most job applications, a step being considered by Georgia, Michigan and New York, among other states.
After more than 25 years of tough-on-crime laws and the incarceration of millions of low-level drug offenders, the effort is part of a bipartisan re-evaluation of the criminal justice system and reflects a growing concern that large numbers of people, especially African-Americans — who have been jailed disproportionately — remain marginalized from the work force and at greater risk of returning to crime.
The reappraisal, joined by such conservative luminaries as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, includes a movement to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, endeavors to expunge the criminal records of nonviolent offenders and reassessing parole and probation rules so violators are not automatically reincarcerated.
“There’s been a shift in people away from wanting to get even,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative anti-crime group in Texas. “People are focused now on getting results. It really is a great benefit to public safety if ex-offenders are able to get jobs, find places to live and get occupational licenses — whether it’s from the perspective of the ex-offender or those of us who are going to live next to them.”
With an estimated one in three American adults having been arrested at some point in their lives, and 16 million people — about 7.5 percent of the adult population — who are felons or former felons, the question of how to reintegrate the 700,000 people who are released from prison each year has become increasingly urgent.
During the past several months, states and cities as varied as Illinois; Nebraska; New Jersey; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; and New Orleans and have adopted so-called Ban the Box laws. In total, some 70 cities and 13 states have passed such laws — most in the past four years.
The laws generally prohibit employers from asking applicants about criminal records as an initial step in the hiring process and from running criminal background checks until job seekers are considered serious candidates for an opening.
Studies have found that ex-offenders, particularly African-Americans, are far less likely to be called back for job interviews if they check the criminal history box on applications, even though research has shown that those possessing a criminal record are no more apt to commit a crime in the workplace than colleagues who have never been convicted.
Still, most of the Ban the Box laws have been enacted so recently that there is little conclusive evidence that they reduce recidivism or unemployment among ex-offenders. Surveys conducted in Minneapolis and Durham, N.C., after those cities passed laws showed that fewer job applicants had been rejected for public sector work because of a criminal conviction.
Ex-offenders, who have been at the fore in pushing for the laws, say preventing employers from inquiring about their criminal pasts in first interviews is critical in removing prejudices against them that make it tough to get work, find a place to live, regain their voting rights, receive federal student aid or obtain professional licenses.
Marilyn Scales, 52, a New York City resident convicted of selling drugs in the 1990s, said telling the truth on job forms had made her virtually unemployable, even though she was released from prison 17 years ago.
“When I answer that question honestly, I never get a call back,” she said. “I feel like I’m still paying for my crimes 20 years later.”
But researchers say Ban the Box laws and other reform measures have gained popularity with lawmakers because of fiscal constraints as much as a desire to aid ex-offenders.
Cities and states emerging from the recession are being forced to cut corrections costs — which total more than $52 billion annually — and have begun to focus on reducing prison populations by discouraging recidivism.
The changes come as the United States continues to have the world’s largest prison population, even though crime is far below its 1990s levels, when illegal drugs ravaged urban neighborhoods.
“When a lot of these laws passed, there was anxiety about crack cocaine and black homicide rates and arguments that some criminals were ‘super predators,’ ” said Steven Raphael, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “That was a powerful argument, especially for legislators, so a lot of the re-evaluation happening now has to do with the budgetary implications of prisons.”