The idea has been termed "banning the box," meaning simply removing the query from the initial questionnaire, saving a criminal background check until later in the hiring process so they're not as readily excluded from the hiring pool. Reported the Austin Statesman ("County may ease barriers to hiring ex-convicts," April 12):
This is an idea where I'd imagine other jurisdictions will take a wait and see approach to see how "banning the box" works for Travis County, but to me it's an exciting development with concrete benefits for communities that adopt it. Not only should the City of Austin and other jurisdictions follow suit, when the Legislature meets next year they should seriously consider requiring the change, where appropriate, for most state and local government agencies.
Sometime in the coming weeks, Travis County commissioners will likely remove the question on county job applications that asks, "have you ever been convicted of any crime?"
That question would be asked later in the interview process. The commissioners say they hope the change, intended as much for its symbolism as its practical effect, will remove a red flag that can cause managers to immediately toss an application in the trash.
"We're weeding them out before they have a chance to show their skills," said County Judge Sam Biscoe, chairman of the Commissioners Court and chief proponent of a new county policy. "It's my guess we're losing a lot of good applicants."
Other local governments, such as Williamson County, say such a change wouldn't have a meaningful impact there and have no plans to follow suit.
Many experts have concluded that finding work is key to ex-convicts becoming productive members of society. But those experts say many have difficulty because of the stigma of a criminal record.
Biscoe said the county change is a necessary precursor to persuading more businesses to hire ex-convicts and creating proposals for housing and drug treatment programs. Last year, the county started an "offender re-entry program" by hiring a coordinator to oversee those efforts.
Although similar government-sponsored efforts have yet to catch on at the local level in Texas, they follow job placement programs the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been running for state prisoners for two decades. Other communities across the country have established similar programs.
One idea is "banning the box" about criminal history from job applications. What effect that will have is unknown. In 2006, San Francisco became the first community to make the change, and at least seven large cities have followed suit, according to advocacy group Safer Foundation. Those communities report anecdotal success but little data.
Biscoe said he wants the change because many county departments, and many employers in general, are reluctant to hire applicants convicted of crimes, whether they robbed a liquor store five ago or were caught with cocaine in the 1980s. A 2006 report on re-entry into society by the Urban Institute, a think tank specializing in social policy, reached a similar conclusion, stating that "employers consistently and legally discriminate against applicants with a history of incarceration."
This climate, Biscoe said, shrinks the labor pool without taking individual circumstances into account.
Chicago had similar concerns. In January 2007, it removed "the box" from its job applications. Angela Rudolph, an assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, said that in 2007, 236 ex-convicts applied for jobs. One-hundred eighty were deemed the best candidate and hired.
The city can't compare that with previous years because it didn't track the statistic before 2007, but Rudolph said it's an encouraging sign that will be vetted as part of an overall analysis of re-entry programs the city is about to start.
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