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'Ban the Box' bill advances over opposition from businesses

Laws and LegislationElectionsBusinessHelen HoltonBill Henry

Supporters of a proposed law to help more ex-convicts land jobs in Baltimore scored a victory Monday when they fended off efforts by the business community to block the measure indefinitely.

The protracted debate over the so-called "Ban the Box" legislation — which would remove the box ex-offenders must check on job applications — underscores a sharp divide among city leaders over how to help those with criminal records become gainfully employed.

The business community had sought to replace the requirement with voluntary measures, including a pledge to hire a certain number of ex-offenders each year, said Councilman Nick J. Mosby, the lead sponsor of the legislation. And some City Council members warned against putting too many restrictions on the private sector.

But the council agreed to move the legislation to a final vote after amending it to exempt positions for which a criminal conviction would disqualify a job candidate. A conviction of embezzlement, for example, could bar some individuals from holding jobs that deal with money.

The issue has had resonance in Baltimore, with its sizable population of residents with a criminal record and relatively high unemployment.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said city leaders have spent enough time talking about the problem, and need to take action. Young said he is especially concerned about the hardships faced by African-American men with criminal records.

"I am tired of people who look like me continuing to be discriminated against," said Young, who is black. "They paid their dues by serving their time. When is enough enough?

"I see it every day. I get the calls to my office every day. I get stopped on the street every day by people who want a second chance."

The measure would forbid an employer from searching a job candidate's criminal history until after a conditional job offer has been extended. The legislation would expand upon a similar restriction that prevents city agencies from running background checks on candidates for some government jobs.

About 10 states and 60 municipalities across the country have enacted "Ban the Box" measures that apply to a mix of government employers and private businesses.

A vote to give the Baltimore bill final approval could come at the council's next meeting April 28.

Mosby worked behind the scenes on a possible compromise with the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of prominent business and civic leaders who oppose the legislation, while fighting efforts to send the bill back to committee for further debate.

Mosby said he also talked with the business community about creating scholarships for juvenile offenders and funding job training for juveniles and adults with criminal histories.

But by Monday, he said, they couldn't come to an agreement, and he decided to push the legislation forward.

"This provides folks an equal shot at getting a job," Mosby said. "It doesn't preclude an employer from doing a background search."

But Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said that the bill would add another burden on city businesses and that "Ban the Box" measures are not a proven course of action to addressing recidivism.

At a minimum, Fry said, the business group wants the council to remove from the bill proposed criminal sanctions companies would face if they violate the law and to allow employers to ask about past transgressions at a job interview rather than waiting until a conditional offer has been made.

"That is much too late in the process," Fry said. "It takes time and money for any hiring process, and to have to start all over again and lose other quality candidates is detrimental."

The Greater Baltimore Committee demonstrated a good-faith effort with Mosby to try to reduce recidivism through helping ex-offenders find work, Fry said. He declined to say what commitment the business group would be willing to make.

"The business community does have a role to play," Fry said.

Other council members, including Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Helen Holton, want the city to explore different approaches to addressing recidivism.

In recent months, some had floated the idea of forming a task force to find ways to ensure ex-offenders can find work and don't end up back behind bars.

Spector said the council should tread carefully when imposing restrictions on the private sector. She argued that the bill should be sent back to committee for more debate.

"Why can't we take one more bite of the apple and do it right?" she said.

During a heated exchange at a council luncheon, Councilman Bill Henry said he planned to fight to send the bill back to committee to address concerns. Henry cited his "desire to have a fully open and transparent conversation about it, rather than a series of conversations in little rooms here in City Hall."

But that effort fell through later in the day when Henry said he couldn't find enough support.

Council members could still move to amend the bill or kill it at the next council meeting.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationElectionsBusinessHelen HoltonBill Henry
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