An influential business group is waging a last-minute effort to derail legislation aimed at helping ex-offenders find work in Baltimore, arguing that the measure would drive jobs from the city.
The Greater Baltimore Committee has asked the City Council to delay action on the bill, due for a final vote as early as Monday, until its impact on job creation can be fully evaluated. The legislation would bar most businesses from performing a criminal background check on a potential employee until the applicant has completed the interview process and a conditional job offer has been made.
But Councilman Nick Mosby, the bill's sponsor, said Thursday he still has the votes for the measure to pass. To respond to concerns, Mosby said he planned to offer an amendment Monday that would exclude from the legislation positions for which a criminal conviction could disqualify an applicant. Sex offenders, for instance, are legally barred from working in child care centers.
"To corporations saying we already hire ex-offenders: I get that you hire people to be janitors or to work in the back of a kitchen, but I am talking about real opportunities," Mosby said. "How can we make sure that we're not giving out life sentences for people's past transgressions?"
Mosby said adding his amendment to the bill at Monday's council meeting could delay the final vote by a week.
Several council members, such as Robert Curran and Sharon Green Middleton, pledged their continued support for the legislation, which passed unanimously on a preliminary vote. An aide to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake previously said the mayor intended to sign the bill but urged the council this week to work with the business community to smooth out concerns.
Kevin Harris, the mayor's spokesman, said Rawlings-Blake remains supportive of the legislation's goal of helping ex-offenders find work. The mayor will continue to monitor the dialogue between the council and business leaders.
"She would like to see a workable solution to a chronic problem in Baltimore City," Harris said. "Her support has not wavered, and she is confident the council will work to make necessary changes to move the bill forward."
The bill — known as "Ban the Box," referring to the box ex-offenders are asked to check on job applications — would apply to businesses with at least 10 workers, including contractual, temporary or seasonal staff.
The city and state already have restrictions on running background checks on candidates for government jobs. Across the country, about 10 other states and 60 municipalities have similar laws.
Baltimore runs the checks only on applicants who would work in "positions of trust," such as police officers. Certain state offices in Maryland are prohibited from asking about past convictions until a candidate has been granted an interview.
Legislation also is pending in Annapolis that would shield certain old, nonviolent offenses from criminal record searches. Law enforcement agencies, court officials and some employers, such as day care centers and private security firms, would continue to have access to the entire record.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the group has detailed its concerns from the outset — that the bill would impose a burden on city-based businesses not faced elsewhere in the region, and subject them to inappropriate criminal and civil penalties for violations. Fry said he wants to work with Mosby.
"What he is trying to do — to deal with recidivism, to provide opportunities — is very laudatory. But we have some concerns about what are some very real unintended consequences," Fry said.
Fry's group, made up of area business leaders, submitted a position paper opposing the bill weeks ago but began a more aggressive campaign last week with a strongly worded letter to the mayor and City Council. (Baltimore Sun publisher Timothy E. Ryan is a member of the group's board of directors.)
Fry said the business community wants to work with the council to find middle ground, but didn't offer any specific suggestions. "We need to have some dialogue," Fry said.
Some council members, including Helen Holton and James B. Kraft, agree that the issue needs more discussion.
"I'd rather see the vote delayed and get a good bill," Kraft said. "The concept is good. When we're talking about rebuilding our city and improving the financial base, we can't do that unless everyone is paying their fair share. But if [ex-offenders] can't find a job, everyone else is footing the bill."
Holton said in a digital age, she wonders how the restrictions on criminal searches would be enforced. She said she'd like to see stakeholders come together to vet the legislation and come up with a plan within a specified time period.
"It gives time to educate everyone better on what it would mean and its impact on reducing recidivism," Holton said.
Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, said the issue's already been studied enough. Deferring the legislation for more evaluation is a method of defeating it, he said. "We can't try the same old thing. That hasn't worked," Perkins-Cohen said.
There is disagreement even among advocates for ex-offenders.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation who also serves as treasurer of the GBC, said a better solution would be to work with employers to change their policies voluntarily. "As far as I know, there is no data showing it would help someone get a job," Embry said. "For every person who doesn't get a job, somebody else gets it. We need more jobs in this city."
He added: "If there is evidence to say it works, it ought to be statewide."
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Job Opportunities Task Force.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun