'Ban the box'? Let's think this through

The Baltimore Sun

Some of the candidates running for mayor in Baltimore would "ban the box." Others aren't so sure.

"Ban the box" is all the rage among many on the left side of the political spectrum these days. The box in question is the one on employment applications that requires applicants to check "Yes" or "No" in answer to the question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

It's safe to assume that those who check both boxes will automatically be excluded from consideration for future employment. But supporters of moves to "ban the box" claim the very question is prejudicial to ex-offenders who are making sincere efforts to reform themselves.

Several cities have "banned the box" on their employment applications. Boston has done it and gone further: Not only can the city government not ask the question, but private companies that do business with the city can't have it on their employment applications either.

Last Wednesday night, the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce held a mayoral forum. Five candidates - incumbent Mayor Sheila Dixon, Del. Jill Carter, Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway and educator Andrey Bundley - were invited. Dixon didn't attend - she did speak to the group in June - and Carter couldn't appear because of illness.

I asked Mitchell, Bundley and Conaway whether they would issue a mayoral edict if they were elected that, in effect, would "ban the box" from city employment applications and whether they would sign legislation that would "ban the box" from applications for private companies that have contracts with the city.

"Councilwoman [Sharon Green] Middleton has put that proposal together," Mitchell answered. "I want to find out what the implications are. What jobs are we talking about? Right now, I'm not prepared to answer that question with a definitive yes or no."

Bundley said that ex-offenders who "have done good work to be sure they're moving in a different direction" shouldn't be hindered by a box on an employment application. Conaway said that he's hired several people with criminal records whose applications were initially rejected because of their criminal history.

"I don't think that question should be on an employment application," Conaway said.

I can think of at least two reasons why it should: to prevent, say, convicted rapists from becoming police officers. Or convicted child molesters from working in the school system.

Carter seems to get that point. I spoke to her yesterday to get her opinion on "banning the box."

"It depends on the nature of the job," Carter said. "For certain jobs, I don't think it would be relevant. But what about jobs that involve handling money? Or being around kids?"

Could the good delegate have been thinking of Martius Harding, the former teacher at Govans Elementary School? Harding had a felony conviction for his part in an Internet credit card scam when the Baltimore school system hired him in 2002. While teaching at Govans, he was convicted of felony drug possession in August 2005 and taught for the entire 2005-2006 school year while awaiting his sentence.

Indeed, discerning voters might ask why, with the Harding debacle fresh in our memory, are we even talking about "banning the box" from city employment applications?

But talking about it we are. To make sure that all of the candidates who were invited to the GBBCC forum had an equal shot at answering the question, I got a comment from Dixon.

"I support the concept," Dixon said about "banning the box." "We are working with Councilwoman Middleton, who has introduced the bill. There are some legal issues. There are certain steps you have to take."

I asked if Middleton's legislation would require privately owned companies that have contracts with the city to "ban the box."

"As soon as we come up with a good plan, I can give you more details," the mayor said. "We want the best plan for Baltimore."

The best plan is this: Leave the box on city employment applications.

On any employment application, that box is the only thing that goes directly to the character of the applicant. An ex-offender's willingness to answer that question honestly speaks volumes about his or her character.

And character is what we're talking about here. There was a time when a felony conviction caused some to question your character - and your judgment. These days, a felony conviction just makes you one on a long list of new victims. In the America of 2007, character doesn't matter. Being a victim does.

Discrimination against applicants because of a felony conviction isn't like discrimination based on race. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous quote is about his wanting his children to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

If a felony conviction - and answering questions honestly about that conviction - isn't about the content of your character, I'd like to know what the heck is.


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