A criminal record shouldn't define someone's entire existence.

That’s why, along with several other organizations and law professors, we filed an amicus brief in support of the City of Waterloo's "Fair Chance/Ban the Box" ordinance.

Fair chance policies are vital to remedy racial disparities in employment. Otherwise, the existing racial disparities in our criminal legal system are only amplified.

The Waterloo ordinance, adopted in 2019, is the first of its kind in Iowa although such ordinances are common throughout the country. It prevents employers from asking about a job applicant’s arrest or conviction record early in the hiring process or deciding not to hire someone based solely on an applicant’s conviction unless they have a legitimate business reason to do so.

The ordinance makes it illegal for employers to include questions about criminal records on job applications in the city. It specifies that private businesses with more than 15 employees cannot ask questions about criminal records or pending criminal charges during the application process, including during an interview.

The Waterloo ordinance is consistent with existing federal and state civil rights agency guidance and court decisions. Those recognize that basing employment decisions on criminal background alone may violate federal and state civil rights law, because doing so has a disparate racial impact that disadvantages Black applicants.

The Association of Business and Industry (ABI) in January filed a lawsuit to block the ordinance. In April, a district court judge upheld the ordinance, but ABI appealed the decision.

"Fair Chance/Ban the Box" ordinances eliminate the checkboxes found on many employment application forms that ask about arrest or conviction history. Without an ordinance like Waterloo’s, those applications often are automatically discarded, even if the arrest never led to a conviction.

This doesn't allow for an individualized assessment of the candidate’s circumstances in light of the particular job sought. People with records, who are disproportionately people of color, are thus denied a fair chance at gainful employment to support themselves, their families, and contribute economically to their communities.

In Waterloo, the need for this type of law is especially noticeable. Nearly 16 percent of Waterloo's population is African-American, the highest in Iowa. The city also suffers from some of the starkest racial disparities in the state and in the nation.

Iowa disproportionately incarcerates African-Americans at a higher rate than almost all other states in the nation. Iowa’s population is less than 4 percent African-American, yet the state prison population is about 25 percent African American. In Waterloo, Black residents make up nearly half of all arrests and were arrested at 5.5 times the rate of other races.

A 2019 study also listed Waterloo as the third-worst city in the country for Black Americans, based on factors such as racial disparities in income, education, health, incarceration, and white-Black achievement gaps.

The data also showed that Black Waterloo residents earn only half of what their white counterparts make, and 19.7 percent of Black Waterloo residents were unemployed, compared to only 4 percent of white residents.

Nationally, 35 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted Fair Chance laws or policies.

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