Following authorization from Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, Vermont will "ban the box" starting in July, 2017, meaning public and private employers in the state will no longer ask job applicants to check a box on an initial employment application form if they have a criminal record.
"It gives everyone an opportunity to make their case, regardless of whatever mistakes they've made, to get a job and make a brighter future," Shumlin said of the bill he signed into law Tuesday.
Vermont is the seventh state to implement a statewide ban the box law applying to both public and private employers, Shumlin's office said. Massachusetts has had the measure in place for several years, and many other cities and counties around the nation have passed local rules around it.
The thinking behind the movement is that merely seeing a box checked indicating that a job applicant has a criminal record could turn off a hiring manager, meaning qualified applicants who found the straight and narrow after past convictions could be shut out of work.
"We believe strongly that if a person pays their debt to society, they deserve a second chance, through employment," said Dan Barlow of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a group that supported the legislation.
Mickey Wiles, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2006 for embezzling $300,000 from the famous Vermont ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's when he was chief financial officer, was on-hand at Tuesday's bill signing to voice his enthusiasm for the upcoming rule change.
Wiles, who told necn he was fighting a losing battle with addiction at the time of his theft, said he struggled to land a job interview following his release from prison.
"I've grown quite a bit from that experience," Wiles said. "I really never thought I'd ever go back into the profession I left, based on my past, but even getting a job in any area was really difficult. I couldn't even get in the door."
Wiles, who said he is now in long-term recovery, eventually did find work as CFO for Burlington Labs, a drug testing provider that believes in second chances. He said since the company's inception, it has never asked about applicants' criminal backgrounds on initial job forms, because it didn't want to shut out potentially good employees due to their past missteps.
"Without the opportunity for employment, it's really, really difficult to have success in getting back on your feet," Wiles observed. “For me, ever since [my release from prison], I've worked hard to do the things I need to do to be a good, productive citizen.”
Employers may still ask about an applicant's background in later stages of the hiring process. Shumlin's office noted that Vermont's law does provide exemptions for certain positions where having a criminal record would automatically disqualify someone under state or federal law.
Wiles said in job interviews at his company, if hiring managers are asking the right questions, they often get the answers they need as to whether or not someone who committed crimes in the past has taken responsibility and accountability for their actions.
"If they are blaming other people, or blaming the system, or blaming everyone else around them except for themselves, you know they probably aren't there yet and probably haven't felt enough pain," Wiles said of one obvious difference between applicants who have taken responsibility for their actions and dedicated themselves to a better future, and those who have not.
Sha'an Mouliert, of the advocacy group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, cheered the state's new ban the box law, calling it a “game changer” that could help to break a cycle of unemployment and incarceration.
"It sentences you, as they say, to a life of disenfranchisement," Mouliert said of unemployment, especially unemployment of someone with criminal convictions in their past.
Critics nationally have questioned if the move to remove the question from job applications may be burdensome to businesses, because many of the city or county ban the box laws vary slightly from one another. Other opponents have expressed concern that the rules may expose businesses or their customers to crime.
"Attempts to ease unemployment frustration or reentry desires should not come at the expense of keeping people and businesses safe from physical or financial harm," warned the National Retail Federation and other industry groups in a letter from nearly five years ago.
Gov. Shumlin insisted Tuesday that for many applicants, banning the box could help break down barriers and give Vermonters who have paid their debt to society a fair shake at finding a new job, along with helping employers find qualified workers to fill open jobs.
President Barack Obama recently reiterated his call that the federal government should change the way job applications are reviewed for most government positions. Obama has said asking about an applicant's criminal record right away can prematurely disqualify candidates from consideration. The White House has said it would like to see those types of questions and background checks delayed until later in the hiring process.