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To help ex-cons, ban the box

A question on most job applications means most ex-offenders will never get the chance that could change their lives.

July 03, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • A bill before California lawmakers seeks to eliminate the question "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" from applications for public employers. Above: An inmate holds papers collected at a job fair at the James A. Musick Correctional Facility in Orange County.
A bill before California lawmakers seeks to eliminate the question "Have… (Los Angeles Times )

The most telling predictor of whether an ex-offender will reenter the community as a law-abiding and productive member, or whether instead he or she will return to jail or prison, is employment. Former inmates with steady jobs have fairly high success rates. For those who can't find work, prospects are dismal.

It stands to reason, then, that society would do what it can to ensure that former inmates get jobs. The benefits are reaped not just by the freed inmates, who can put incarceration permanently behind them, or their families, who can have their loved ones and their breadwinners at home instead of locked up in distant cells where they can provide little familial, and no financial, support. It's obviously also better for communities to have their residents holding down jobs, paying their taxes and spending their earnings locally than shuttling back and forth to jail and, when in the neighborhood, having idle time and empty pockets.

But in fact society makes it hard, both for people returning from jail or prison and for those who have lived responsibly for many years after being incarcerated but who then lose their jobs and must go back into the employment market. A felony conviction, no matter how long in the past, carries a stigma that makes job-hunting exceedingly difficult. Employment forms often include a box that asks: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Check the box, and the application most likely goes to the bottom of the stack or into the trash. In large companies or public institutions, those applicants are generally blocked by lowest-level bureaucrats or by human resources software before they can even make their case to decision makers, who can put any criminal history in its proper perspective.

There is a growing movement nationwide to "ban the box" from employment applications and end discrimination against people who have spent time behind bars. It is time for California to join the movement, cautiously but deliberately. Cautiously, because employers have a right to know who their workers are and a duty to protect their businesses and workplaces; and deliberately, because we're foolishly punishing ourselves by not welcoming safe and potentially productive people into the workplace.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would eliminate the question from applications for public employers — cities, counties, school districts and the like. It would have no effect on private employers or their practices. Public employee HR people would still be able to ask about criminal histories and do background checks, as they should, and eliminate applicants they believe pose risks to the workplace or the public; but they'd be able to consider a wider range of talents, skill sets and experience without first losing access to applications that were tossed out because of a conviction and a checked box.

AB 218 makes sense and deserves to become law. For public employers, at the earliest stage of the job application process, it's time to ban the box.

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