Banning the box [Editorial]

The Baltimore City Council's expected approval next week of a bill that would ban employers from asking about a job applicant's criminal record before conducting an initial interview could greatly benefit efforts to reduce unemployment in the city if it makes it easier for ex-convicts to get jobs. More than half of the offenders released from Maryland's prisons return to live in Baltimore, and the chance that they will re-offend often depends to a large degree on whether they can find legitimate employment to support themselves and their families. But while many people coming out of prison truly want to turn their lives around, employers also need to be protected against applicants with the kind of criminal records that make them unsuitable or unqualified to hold certain jobs.

City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, the bill's sponsor, says the measure is needed because thousands of people every year are dismissed out of hand by prospective employers because they checked a box on their application forms indicating that at some point the past they were arrested or convicted of a crime. Moreover, it doesn't seem to matter how long ago the offense was committed, whether it involved a minor misdemeanor or a violent felony, or how successful the applicants' subsequent efforts to redeem themselves have been. As a result, many people who potentially could become good employees are denied the opportunity to show they deserve a second chance.

An even more insidious effect of routinely rejecting job applicants who acknowledge having a criminal record is that the practice unfairly discriminates against minorities and the poor, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2008 the EEOC issued guidelines on the use of conviction records in hiring and urged employers to avoid basing decisions on whether to interview or hire candidates based solely on such data. More recently, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published results of a survey showing that after five years of staying clean, a person with a criminal record is at no more risk of committing another crime than other individuals of the same age.

This week's City Council action would expand on legislation approved in 2007 that bans city agencies from asking candidates whether they have a criminal record on applications for government jobs. Similar legislation has been passed by 10 states and 53 cities and counties. In 2011, Philadelphia put strict limits on the screening of criminal records by most employers in that city under a law that bans unfair discrimination against people arrested or convicted of crimes after their release. The stated purpose of the law was to increase public safety and stabilize city neighborhoods by reducing the number of ex-offenders who return to a life of crime.

Mr. Mosby hopes that will also be the case in Baltimore. Implementing the law obviously may require some adjustments for certain sensitive positions. The legislation already exempts "facilities serving minors or vulnerable adults," but city officials should listen closely to businesses to determine whether other jobs may warrant targeted exemptions — for example whether banks should be allowed to screen prospective tellers for theft convictions. Businesses, meanwhile, will need to work with city officials to make sure their application materials are in line with EEOC guidelines.

In general, the EEOC asks employers to refrain from making inquiries into criminal convictions before or during the application process and initial interview, and to not ask about arrests that did not result in convictions. The agency also recommends that employers determine an applicant's job qualifications before conducting a criminal background check and consider whether any offense the applicant was convicted of has any relevance to his or her fitness for the job. Employers should also notify candidates whose applications are rejected because of information turned up during a background check and give them a chance to challenge its accuracy.

City officials need to monitor the effects of this legislation carefully to make sure it lives up to its promise and doesn't create more problems than it solves. But if prohibiting unfair discrimination against people with criminal records helps the city grow its population and boost employment, as Mr. Mosby anticipates, it will be a good thing not only for the people who are trying to overcome a checkered past but for everyone who lives and works in the city as well.

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