A law passed in Massachusetts in 2010 aimed to prevent prospective employers from excluding applicants based solely on how they checked one box.

Lawmakers realized the taint that often comes after someone runs afoul of the court system shouldn’t be a permanent barrier to getting a job. The law aimed to get rid of the box on employment applications that had to be checked to reveal the fact an applicant had a criminal history, often allowing a business to categorically exclude them before they could get past the starting line. Lawmakers’ thinking was to address high unemployment and barriers for people with criminal records trying to get back in the workforce.

Those barriers hit hardest in communities of color, where residents are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, according to Attorney General Maura Healey’s Office. Healey was a proponent of changing the criminal offender record information system (CORI) to bar employers from asking about criminal history as part of an initial job application. 

“The pathway to economic security starts with getting a job,” Healey said in a statement this week. “Too many people who have paid their debt to society still face barriers to even landing an interview. These actions are an effort to give all job applicants a fair chance.”

Now, employers cannot ask about certain criminal records at any stage of the hiring process -- including those related to an arrest or criminal case that didn’t end in conviction; a first conviction for drunkenness, simple assault, speeding, disturbance of the peace, affray (when a person makes a threat that puts another person in fear) or minor traffic violations; misdemeanor convictions that are more than three years old; sealed or expunged criminal records; and juvenile records, according to Healey’s office. Employers may still seek information in the hiring process about other aspects of applicants’ criminal histories.

As part of the effort to educate the public and businesses about the “ban the box” law, the AG’s office announced this week agreements it had reached with two companies operating in the Bay State – including DesignWerkes Inc., in Amesbury and the Brooks Brothers clothing store chain – and warning letters sent to 17 other business found to be in violation of this  law. The enforcement action was praised by the Boston Bar Association and Greater Boston Legal Services.

Michael Avitzur, the Boston Bar Association’s director of government relations and public affairs, said it supports the “ban the box” enforcement  “because we agree that people shouldn’t continue to suffer adverse employment consequences long after they have paid their debt to society.”

And Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI & Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said Healey and her staff “are to be applauded for these efforts because passing a good law only takes us halfway— enforcement like this is critical.”

The AG’s office did a similar enforcement of the law in June 2018 and found 21 businesses in violation. At that time it reached agreements with four national employers and issued warning letters to 17 other Boston-area businesses.

The enforcement is aimed at bringing companies into compliance and raising awareness that the law has changed. When the law went into place, the AG set up a system for job applicants to file complaints if they believe a business is breaking the law. 

Many people who run afoul of the law deserve the chance to put that minor criminal history behind them. And those charged with a crime as a juvenile, or charged as an adult but not convicted, also deserve a chance to get a job, get a loan and get on with their lives in productive ways. The work by legislators and the attorney general to get this law enacted, and the AG’s efforts now to enforce it and educate employers about compliance, can be the action that raises all boats.