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Mayor needs to get involved in 'ban the box' fight [Editorial]

Baltimore's City Council is due to vote Monday on the "ban the box" ordinance — a measure that would prohibit prospective employers from inquiring about an applicant's criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Its passage appears all but assured. The bill is designed to ensure that ex-offenders have a chance to be judged on the merit of their present skills rather than solely on the basis of their criminal past, and that is a goal we wholeheartedly support. We just hope it's not too late to make two modest changes that would, ultimately, serve the greater cause of increasing employment opportunities for those with criminal records.

Councilman Nick Mosby, the bill's chief sponsor, had extensive but ultimately fruitless negotiations with Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry over the business community's concerns with the legislation. Though the GBC had opposed the bill outright as anti-business, it had boiled its request down to three amendments. One would have made clear that the ordinance did not apply to jobs where the hiring of ex-offenders is prohibited by state or federal law, and that one was adopted, though some have questioned whether the precise language the council approved is sufficient. The second would eliminate criminal penalties — possibly including jail time — from the bill. And the third would allow prospective employers to check for criminal history before an offer of employment is made.

As part of the negotiations, Mr. Fry offered the GBC's support on a number of initiatives to help encourage the hiring of ex-offenders, but the two sides were never able to come to agreement. Though we commend the business community for making the offer, in our view, the proposed amendments are eminently reasonable and warrant adoption in their own right.

Mr. Mosby says he wants criminal penalties as part of the bill to ensure that it has teeth and to prevent employers as seeing fines for violations as merely the cost of doing business. And he analogizes the requirement that criminal background checks only occur after a conditional offer of employment is made to the way drug tests are handled now. Limiting them to that stage eliminates any chance of implicit bias in the hiring process, Mr. Mosby says.

We appreciate the evident sincerity of Mr. Mosby's position, but on those two points, we disagree. We find it odd that legislation intended to provide more opportunities for those with criminal records would have the result of giving more people criminal records. And the reality of putting off a criminal background check until a conditional offer of employment is made is that businesses could lose out on other qualified applicants if they have to wait until so late in the process to learn that a prospective employee's criminal record makes him or her unsuitable for the job in question. Moreover, we're not sure how it benefits the ex-offender to have a job offered and then yanked away.

More fundamentally, though, the matter is a question of the relationship between the city government and the business community. As it is, Baltimore doesn't exactly have a reputation as being excessively business-friendly; quite the opposite. In a city without nearly enough jobs in general, we would hope the City Council would at least show some concern for potential employers' opinions. The business community showed a willingness to meet more than half-way, and although we do not believe the "ban the box" law itself would send employers scurrying for the suburbs, we do fear that a growing sense that City Hall is dismissive of the business perspective could.

Three weeks ago, Councilman Bill Henry attempted to send the legislation back to committee so the council could at least hold a hearing on the proposed amendments, but there weren't enough votes for that. It's unlikely that things have changed since then.

But it's not too late. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged to sign whatever bill the council passes but has not gotten involved in the details. Now's the time for her to get off the sidelines. She needs to look out for the bigger picture of how passing this legislation in this form in this manner will affect the city as a whole. Ms. Rawlings-Blake should push for the council to send the bill back to committee to consider those two amendments, and she should make clear that she will veto any version of the bill that does not address those two concerns. After all, "ban the box" can give ex-offenders a fair shot at jobs, but that doesn't help if there are no jobs to get.

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