Monday, August 12, 2013

Ban the Box Laws-Needed or Not?

Let's say that you were going to hire a babysitter/choose a day care center for your children, nieces and nephews, or other younger relatives. Would you want to know if the person to whom you were entrusting your next generation had spent time in prison for assaulting kids? If you wanted to hire (male) security at a domestic violence/rape crisis center would you think it relevant to know that the 6-4 teddy bear of a man who earnestly says he abhors violence against women just did ten years in federal prison for kidnapping, raping and pimping young girls? If your pre-teen son needs a math tutor would you send him to the home of a math professor who's not only a NAMBLA member but twenty years prior was convicted of child sex abuse? If you run a cash business and need to hire someone to make regular deposits of thousands of dollars to various banks, would you be nonchalant about hiring a woman who was just paroled after serving time for embezzlement and has ties to gangs specializing in armed robbery?

I think that most of you would probably think twice about hiring those people for those positions, if you knew their previous history. It may not be anything personal. You may be making a mistake. But you'd still want to know what they did right? You may not care if the fellow you hired to paint your house has some misdemeanor marijuana convictions. But there are other positions (akin to the above) where greater trust or intimacy is required or the crimes are relevant to the job duties.

The honorable city leaders of Richmond, California have decided that if you're a private city contractor who employs more than nine people you can't ask ANYTHING about an applicant's criminal record, otherwise you'll lose your contract.

So checking into an applicant's criminal past is now illegal. There are exceptions for jobs considered to be "sensitive" or jobs where background checks are required by state or federal law.
RICHMOND, Calif.—City officials in this San Francisco suburb passed an ordinance this past week prohibiting city contractors from ever inquiring about many job applicants' criminal histories. The move in this city of 100,000 people, which is troubled by crime and high unemployment, is part of a growing national trend that supporters say is designed to improve the community's employment prospects amid wider incarceration.
Under the ordinance, approved by the City Council in a 6-1 vote and set to take effect in September, private companies that have city contracts and that employ more than nine people won't be able to ask anything about an applicant's criminal record; otherwise they would lose their city contracts. The ordinance is one of the nation's strictest "ban-the-box" laws, which are so called because many job applications contain a box to check if one has a criminal record. 
"Once we pay our debt, I think the playing field should be fair," said Andres Abarra of Richmond, who was released from San Quentin State Prison in 2006 after serving 16 months for selling heroin. Mr. Abarra, 60 years old, said he lost his first job out of prison, at a warehouse, about a month after a temporary agency hired him. The agency ran a background check and "let me go on the spot," he said. He now works for an advocacy group called Safe Return that campaigned for the ordinance. 
Others say the laws potentially endanger both employers and the public. "We have a responsibility to protect our customers, protect other employees and then the company itself" from potential crime, said Kelly Knott, senior director for government relations of the National Retail Federation, an industry group in Washington, D.C., which hasn't taken a position on ban-the-box laws but has cautioned against federal guidance that could limit how employers use background checks. 
Richmond, with a population of about 100,000, joins 51 other municipalities that have passed similar ordinances, many in the past five years.
I'm not sure that this is a good thing. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand the US and its constituent states put too many people in prison. California is currently being forced by the federal government to release people from prison because of overcrowding. It would be useful both on a macro level both from a humane and a pragmatic perspective to ensure that these people get meaningful employment. That helps reintegrate them into the community and hopefully cut down on recidivism. 

But if at work I sit down at the "wrong" lunch table and a co-worker has a flashback to his San Quentin days and responds accordingly, after I get out of the hospital I might want to discuss with my firm and a civil jury why this savage was hired in the first place. I remember attending a party hosted by a lady quite close to me. Unbeknownst to us both someone else had taken it upon themselves to invite a friend who was just recently released from prison. His crime? Armed robbery and theft. Is that the sort of person you want roaming around your home?

There are some jobs where a criminal record is mostly immaterial to the work being done. There are others where a criminal record is quite relevant. I think that that decision needs to be left up to the employer, with only modest input from the state. I don't think that an arrest record or even a misdemeanor record should be able to be considered. But felonies? A possible employer needs to know about that. It's not like we have a labor shortage in this economy.
Obviously the elephant in the room is race. As we've discussed before the criminal justice system is racially biased at every level. Black people are disproportionately represented in the system. We must take steps to address this and deal with the consequences. This is why I'm against stop-and-frisk, the War on Drugs, racist police, snide bullying prosecutors and judges, armed bureaucrats, no-knock warrants, three strikes laws and a federal criminal code that has expanded almost exponentially since the sixties. I think that once you've served your time you should be able to vote again period. We also know that a white person with a criminal record has an equal or better chance to be hired than a black person without one! And we know that the EEOC is suing two companies for discriminating against black people by utilizing criminal background checks.

All that said, however there is a difference between someone who went to prison for driving without a valid license and someone who went to prison for stabbing someone in the neck. If I'm an employer I need to know the records so I can make the appropriate decisions. In the WSJ article a woman who spent six months in prison for arson states that she campaigned for the new law. Sorry but again, if I am looking to hire someone, I would really like to know if they're going to burn my company down. This is an excellent example of where the individual and group goals may conflict. On a group level I want and need responsible ex-cons to be productive members of society. On an individual level? Ehhh....

What do you think?

Should employers be able to use criminal background checks for applicants?

Should employers be liable if an ex-con they hired engages in criminal activity at work? 

If you believe in background checks for purchasing guns why not a background check for a job?

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