Controversial legislation intended to help ex-convicts find jobs is headed to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for her expected signature after the City Council gave the measure final approval Monday.
The "Ban the Box" bill will force Baltimore employers to wait to ask about a job candidate's criminal history until a conditional offer has been extended. The bill passed despite an intense lobbying effort from business leaders, who said they should have the right to vet prospective employees early in the process.
The legislation requires private employers with 10 or more workers to remove from job applications a box ex-offenders must check stating they have a criminal record. Positions for which a criminal history would bar a candidate are exempt. For instance, a child care center could inquire about sexual abuse convictions, officials said.
In a statement after the Council's 10-4 vote Monday night, Rawlings-Blake called the legislation "a critical component to not only helping to reduce unemployment, but also improving public safety by addressing recidivism."
"When it comes to the crime fight, we have to use every tool available, which includes creating opportunities for those who have paid their debt to society and want to turn their lives around," the mayor said.
Katie Allston, director of Marian House in Waverly, said the legislation will be life-changing for those who have been unable to get work because of a criminal conviction. Founded as a charity to help women transition from prison, Marian House provides transitional and permanent housing to more than 100 women and children.
"Our women that we see here are really trying to pick themselves up out of some tragic situations," Allston said. "Often, things they have done long ago in their past get in the way." Marian House was one of a dozen groups working for the bill's passage.
The influential Greater Baltimore Committee — a network of business and civil leaders — rallied against the bill, urging the council to allow employers to ask about a job candidate's criminal history during an interview, if not earlier. The group said the measure could discourage businesses from hiring in the city.
"We're disappointed," said Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC. "We respectfully disagree with the actions of the City Council, but I don't believe it will lead to a contentious relationship."
The bill's lead sponsor, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, said he believes the legislation is among the most progressive in the country. "Baltimore is going to be a leader in the country when it comes to fair hiring practices," Mosby said.
So far, about 10 states and 60 local governments have enacted laws that restrict when some employers can ask a job candidate about previous convictions. Both Maryland and Baltimore already restrict when certain government agencies can ask job candidates about old convictions.
Mosby, who was elected in 2011 to represent parts of Northwest Baltimore, said he's been inundated with phone calls, meetings and emails from people on all sides of the issue.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, also of Northwest Baltimore, said the council was foolish not to heed the concerns of businesses. "We haven't paid any attention to what they've said," Spector said. "I am just exasperated." Spector said the bill should have been sent back to committee, where the council could have further debated the matter.
"We're encroaching on the private sector — where the jobs are, where industry is, where the tax base is," Spector said. "To ignore it makes no sense to me."
Councilwoman Helen Holton, who voted against the bill, said she worried it could create acrimony between businesses and city government.
Councilman Bill Henry of North Baltimore said he expects that city leaders will be tasked in the not-too-distant future with addressing some unintended consequences from a well-intended but poorly executed measure. He led a failed effort this month to delay the bill for further debate but ultimately voted for the measure Monday.
"What we're going to get is a flawed bill that becomes a flawed law," Henry said.
Mosby said delaying the bill was a strategy intended to quash the proposal. The council was right to act now, he said, with some 1,300 new jobs expected at two Amazon warehouses and other opportunities through the $1.8 billion Harbor Point waterfront development.
"For the ex-offender population, they are going to feel like they have hope and a fair chance to get gainful employment," Mosby said. "Give them a chance to compete."
Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said he supports the legislation as a way to address the city's relatively high unemployment rate.