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San Francisco may bar employers, landlords from asking about arrests, convictions

A proposal would defer questions about criminal history until the applicant's qualifications are considered.

July 20, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • If San Francisco's ordinance is approved, the city would join Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts and Philadelphia in protecting most people with criminal records from blanket discrimination in the private job market.
If San Francisco's ordinance is approved, the city would join Hawaii,… (Eric Risberg, Associated…)

Reporting from San Francisco — City officials are considering a law that would prohibit private employers, landlords and city contractors from inquiring about an individual's arrest or conviction history before determining whether that person is qualified for a job or housing.

If the law is approved, San Francisco would join Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts and Philadelphia in protecting most people with criminal records from blanket discrimination in the private job market. A handful of jurisdictions in Illinois and Wisconsin impose similar restrictions on landlords, and Seattle is now weighing a proposal comparable to San Francisco's that does both.

Specifically, the law would require that questions about criminal background be deferred until a determination is made that the applicant is otherwise qualified. A rejection would then be permitted based on an applicant's prior conviction only if it were "substantially related" to the job or housing in question.

Someone convicted of embezzling, for example, could be turned down for a job working with money. The proposal, which will soon be drafted as an ordinance and debated by lawmakers, would not interfere with state and federal laws that already ban some former criminals from jobs in law enforcement, child care and other fields.

It will be the subject of a hearing Wednesday before the city's Human Rights Commission, which along with the San Francisco Reentry Council has recommended that it become law. But it has already sparked outrage.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle editorial called it "eye-rolling" and an example of "the fuzzy-headed thinking that makes San Francisco politics such rich fodder for late-night comedy and cable commentators." The San Francisco Apartment Assn. said it would unduly burden private property owners and open them up to potential lawsuits.

Proponents, however, say it is critical to public safety.

"This is not about being soft on crime," said San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, a strong supporter. "If we release people into our communities and don't figure out a way to get them housing and employment, we put them in a situation where the only opportunity they have is often to reoffend."

About 30% of the nation's adult population has a criminal conviction, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Reentry advocates say those rap sheets are easily unearthed by the vast majority of employers who now rely on private background checks.

The U.S. attorney general recently convened a cabinet-level council to grapple with the issue, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will take it up at a hearing next week.

In California, the problem has gained particular urgency, as tens of thousands of prisoners from overcrowded state facilities will soon become a local responsibility. "How we work the reentry process is going to be very critical," said Gascon, who has invited leaders from the nine Bay Area counties to discuss a coordinated approach to the problem.

The proposal comes five years after San Francisco passed an ordinance offering similar protections for public job seekers. Such laws are now in place in several states and about two dozen cities and counties nationwide.

It would offer a foot in the door to those who have been locked out of opportunities, supporters say.

"I don't think you can necessarily change people's minds by legislation, you change people's minds by putting someone in front of them who can do the job, whether they are formerly incarcerated or not," said Gerald Miller, 54, who served time for drug- and theft-related charges and now works with former inmates and sits on the reentry council.

Similar private-sector protections are gaining currency nationwide. Massachusetts signed sweeping reform last year, and Philadelphia's went into effect this month. They counter what a recent National Employment Law Center report concluded is widespread reluctance by employers to hire the convicted.

"No Misdemeanors and/or Felonies of any type ever in background," read one Craigslist ad excerpted in a recent report by the organization.

Employers and landlords who do background checks have "felt that they have free rein: 'If I see something I don't like at all, I can just stop you from working here or living here,' " said Michelle Rodriguez, an Oakland-based attorney with the law center who has provided guidance to San Francisco. "It creates this huge class for whom it's impossible to find housing and work."

Employer groups in San Francisco such as the Chamber of Commerce have not yet weighed in on the policy, which also gives those rejected based on a conviction an opportunity to appeal. But landlord representatives have raised the alarm.

"They're putting a burden on private individuals like myself or you to make a determination on someone's criminal background," said Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Assn. "Having us determine evidence of rehabilitation through an interview with a tenant? I have no background in parole. How are we going to do that?"

lee.romney@latimes.com

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