Washington’s public colleges and universities would have to “ban the box” on their initial student application under a bill considered by a House panel Wednesday.
The schools could still deny a student with certain criminal convictions or limit access to certain facilities or housing based on individual circumstances. But a prospective student would not be immediately disqualified when applying.
The bill echoes legislation passed by the House and pending in the Senate to keep employers from asking about criminal history on initial job applications.
Removing the question would give people who did their time a fair shot at rehabilitation, said Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds.
“We should remove any barriers we can to those people who have paid their debt,” she said.
Noel Adam Vest, a Washington State University doctoral candidate in psychology, said one study shows 62 percent of people convicted of crimes failed to complete an application after the question on criminal backgrounds, even if the university’s admission would still accept them.
“The main reason formerly incarcerated individuals don’t get accepted is because they don’t finish the application,” he said.
Steven Simmons, a business student at Western Washington University with a robbery conviction on his record, said he was “stopped in his tracks” by the question. Without a strong support system he would not have finished his application, he said.
“Graduating from the community college with honors, serving in community coalitions for homelessness, years of sobriety and the dedication to my personal transformation – in that moment, none of that meant anything,” he said. “It felt like a gate was closing, and my dream had died on the launch pad.”
Christopher Poulos, executive director at the Washington Statewide Re-entry Council, said simply asking about criminal history does not accurately access a person’s current qualifications.
Although he has worked under high security requirements for the government, Poulos said he has still struggled with being barred from other types of applications, like housing, by criminal background questions.
“Allowing us to get our foot in the door and explain who we are as a person rather than only a name or a number helps substantially,” he said.