'Ban the box' feels good but won't achieve much

That "ban the box" bill before the Baltimore City Council is classic feel-good legislation, based on instinct rather than evidence that it will make a difference. I doubt "ban the box" will achieve much. The proposal — which would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about criminal histories with a check-off box on a job application — might even make matters worse for the many paroled criminals who seek a job in Baltimore and a second chance in life.

Instead of lining up to support "ban the box" while ticking off numerous employers across the city, the mayor and council ought to be talking to businesses about hiring ex-offenders, one man or one woman at a time.

More on that in a minute.

First, here's what I've learned from talking to ex-offenders and the owners of companies over the years: Not everyone wants to do the right thing. Some companies are sympathetic and willing to give a guy a chance, but many don't want to take on the risk. So they have policies.

If a business has a policy against hiring any ex-cons, either by executive decision or on the advice of counsel, no "ban the box" law will make a difference. If a company official goes through the interview process and loves an applicant, but finds out later that he has a felony conviction, that company — especially a national chain of some kind — is still not going to give the ex-con the position.

Not if company policy forbids it. Not if the company attorney advises against it. Not if ownership wants no part of someone with a criminal record.

"Ban the box" does not fix any of that.

On its face, the City Council bill sounds good — to give an ex-offender a chance to get to a job interview and impress a prospective employer.

I applaud any elected official who even takes up this cause. Ex-offender unemployment has been a sleeping giant of an issue in Baltimore for a long time. It contributed greatly to a high statewide recidivism rate, with at one time more than 50 percent of Maryland inmates returning to prison within three years after being released. (Recidivism has dropped by nearly 10 percentage points since then, according to corrections data.)

"Ban the box" sounds like something we should all support if we want to break the cycle of inmates coming out of prison and returning to a life of crime.

But while "ban the box" might ostensibly even the playing field for an ex-offender at the start of the job application process, a pretty large issue still looms at the back end, and it's this:

A company that previously rejected ex-offenders might be willing to hire someone on the spot; it might even be thoroughly satisfied with the new worker's production and reliability for a while. But if the criminal background check turns up positive, the company will let that worker go. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of ex-offenders who have a story like that: being on time and meeting expectations for a month or two before being told to leave because their background checks made them ineligible for the job.

So in that scenario, "ban the box" ultimately makes no difference.

And yet, the City Council appears poised to pass "ban the box" and, in the process, make the city even less friendly to business than it already is. That's the last thing Baltimore's unemployed and underemployed need as the economy pokes along.

What we have here are good intentions and a bad approach.

You can't legislate magnanimity.

You can't make noble generosity mandatory for everyone in a position to offer work. You can't order businesses to ignore a prospective employer's past. And you shouldn't be passing a law just because it feels good.

But what you can do is persuade and argue passionately on an issue that needs political and corporate leadership.

What the mayor and council should do is collaborate with businesses — through, say, the Greater Baltimore Committee — in a voluntary campaign to give second chances.

The first focus should be on small businesses willing to give it a try. In small shops, an employer or midlevel manager can provide personal attention and on-the-job mentoring to an ex-offender trying to do the right thing.

I suggested this about eight years ago. (Does anyone listen to me?)

Call the initiative "Hire One," with employers agreeing to take on just one ex-offender in the next hiring cycle. They could hire graduates of a nonprofit program that prepares ex-offenders for the workforce. There's also a federal bonding program that provides insurance against employee theft or damage, and at no cost to the boss.

This kind of ground-level, common-sense approach to recidivism and ex-offender unemployment has wide bipartisan support. People across the ideological spectrum get it. They see the value and the logic: Give a guy a second chance, break the cycle, save money on prison, nurture a reliable worker, reduce crime.

You don't need a law to achieve that. You need leadership and generous spirits.


Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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