Bill in state Legislature aimed at leveling job-search playing field for ex-inmates

State Sen. Maralyn Chase

The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill, co-sponsored by 32nd District Sen. Maralyn Chase, that would help formerly incarcerated Washingtonians get a fairer chance at employment.

The Fair Chance Act would “ban the box” — that is, prevent employers from asking about a person’s criminal background until after he or she is deemed qualified for the job.

Tarra Simmons, executive director of Civil Survival, an advocacy group for people who have been incarcerated, says people coming out of jail or prison need a way to support themselves just like anyone else in the community.

“When people can’t find employment, we see a high rate of recidivism — people coming out of prison and going right back in,” she points out. “So that is a tremendous use of resources that we are spending incarcerating people across our state, when they could have some hope and some opportunity to survive in a lawful way.”

The Washington State Fair Chance Coalition says a conservative estimate for the cost to imprison someone is about $47,000 per year.

The Washington State Senate Labor and Commerce Committee is expected to hold a public hearing on this bill Wednesday afternoon.

Exceptions to the Fair Chance Act include people applying to work with children or in law enforcement.

Simmons understands the difficulty of finding a job after prison. Even though her registered nurse’s license was active, she says no one would hire her and in some cases rescinded job offers after finding out about her criminal record.

“Burger King was the only place that would hire me,” she relates. “And I had so many other skills and abilities, but because of my record, a lot of people would just discard my application, and so that’s why I decided to go to law school.”

Simmons graduated from law school over the summer but wasn’t allowed to take the Washington bar exam because of her record. She challenged the decision, and in November the Washington State Supreme Court ruled she could.

Simmons says a change in culture is needed so that employers understand the value of hiring people with a criminal history.

Twenty-four states, as well as Seattle and Spokane, have enacted laws similar to the Fair Chance Act.

Washington’s 32nd district includes much of Edmonds and Lynnwood, as well as the area of Mountlake Terrace that is west of I-5.

— By Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service (WA)

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