Sunday, April 13, 2008

Travis County moving toward "banning the box" to boost ex-felons' employment

I'm quite proud of County Judge Sam Biscoe and Travis County officials for their visionary proposal to remove criminal history questions on most county job applications, a move designed to make it easier for ex-felons to find employment.

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):

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.

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.

RELATED: Transportation, Employment and Re-entry


Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see how this works out. I applaud Travis County for doing this.

In my work with inmates, I know one of the biggest problems I have with them in planning for the future upon release from prison is the job issue. If we want them to at least give life without crime a chance, they need ample opportunities to get on their feet in the honest job market.

Frustration with finding a job quickly leads many of them back into their old ways.

Anonymous said...

"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."

That doesn't surprise me. Big, bad, Williamson County aint ever gonna change.

You know, this "Fire the Felons" had a big time impact over at the Youth Commission. We lost almost all of our LCDC's. They're hard to recruit. We beg, and beg, and beg... but you can't have a felony. Stupid rule.

We also lost many employees who had a shaky past in their young lives only to turn coat and become productive citizens while lending a hand to prevent young offenders from following in their footsteps.

Travis County is making a good choice. But maybe if we'd quit making it so damn easy to felonize every damn thing we can in the state, we wouldn't be having this discussion?

Anonymous said...

The State has many jobs that do not require the carrying of or knowledge of use of guns, but the state will not hire anyone with a felony record, even if it was from the 60's or 70's and not even a traffic ticket since. SO maybe the state needs to practice what they preach. Hire a person with a background if they legally can do the job and are qualified. Bet the public would be glad to have these people employed and not on welfare. I think Travis County is sitting a fine example of being fair and non biased in their search for employees who want to work.

Anonymous said...

John Bradley, Wilco prosecutor, pretty much sums up the county's idea of justice for those who have served their time and want to be productive citizens once again -- "unrestrained and uneducated."

Anonymous said...

This is a very progressive move in a state that seems intent on criminalizing a broad range of behavior (except, most recently, killing a homeless person). Without the "box" there is opportunity for a large and growing under-class within our society. Ex-felons (such as myself) can not answer truthfully that they are not a felon even if they can get it reduced to a misdemeanor or have it adjudicated. With an otherwise good resume, I am mired in this under-class for the rest of my career.

Debby said...

This isn't just a good idea, it's a great one. One of the problems many employers create for themselves is using software like "key words". If you program that box as a key word and it excludes it before anyone has ever even looked at it, no one really wins. When we talk to many employers, one on one, we find that most just want someone who will show up on time every day and put in an honest day's work. Artifical excluders like this box deny employers a qualified employee and denies qualified applicants a real chance at a normal life....just this Old Hippie's thought