Matt Driscoll

Tacoma banned the box for city jobs. Now do it for everyone else

Last week the Tacoma City Council officially, and unanimously, “banned the box,” removing the question “Have you been convicted of a felony within the last 10 years?” from most city job applications.

In following the lead of a growing number of cities and municipalities, Tacoma acknowledged the obvious: People with a criminal conviction on their records have a difficult time finding employment, and that has consequences for folks trying to overcome their pasts and turn their lives around, and for our community as a whole.

Consider: According to the National Employment Law Project, “Conservative estimates indicate that roughly 70 million people in the United States have some sort of a criminal record, and nearly 700,000 people return to our communities from incarceration every year.”

That’s a whole lot of people — about 1 in 4 adults carrying a felony or misdemeanor that would show up on a routine background check, according to NELP.

And a disproportionate number of those arrested and incarcerated are minorities. Statistics from the Bureau of Justice indicate that the incarceration rate for African-American males is six times higher than the rate among white males and more than 2.5 times higher for Hispanic males.

That’s a problem.

And it doesn’t end when we set people free. Successful reentry into society demands that we provide people with a legitimate chance to succeed on the straight and narrow. Employment policies that deter anyone with a criminal blemish in their past from getting a job only work against this.

In truth, these policies encourage criminal recidivism, making it a public safety issue as well. If a person is unable to find gainful employment after a criminal conviction, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to return to the things that got them into trouble in the first place.

The city didn’t do away with background checks entirely. They’re still allowed, and — in fact — required. It’s just that, with the exception of a few particular jobs and police openings, now background checks will come later in the city’s hiring process.

It may seem like a trivial change, and in some cases it will be.

But getting rid of the box allows for something very important to happen: Applicants will now have a chance to sell themselves and, potentially, get past the stigma that comes with a criminal background.

The box is “a way to screen someone out before looking at the rest of the application,” City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards told The News Tribune, explaining the rationale behind the Tacoma’s recent decision.

Results from across the country suggest it makes a difference. In Atlanta, after the city adopted a ban the box policy, 10 percent of the people hired by the city in a six-month period had some sort of criminal record. And a case study of Durham County, North Carolina, found that the number of applicants with criminal records recommended for hire nearly tripled in the two years after the city banned the box.

That’s why what the City Council did last week was a good first step.

Now it’s time to do more — as seven states, the District of Columbia, and twelve cities and counties across the country have done, according to NELP. Tacoma should go beyond city government and extend ban the box-style hiring policies to private employers.

A scary thought? It shouldn’t be.

Just such a citywide law for private employers went into effect in Seattle in November 2013, spearheaded by city councilman Bruce Harrell and women from Sojourner Place Transitional Housing. Known as the Job Assistance Ordinance, its passage followed three years of heated debate and compromise, with opponents citing safety concerns and a fear that employers would be unjustly burdened by new investigations and fines for noncompliance.

So far? None of those fears have materialized.

Thanks to extensive outreach and proactive employer training, a city review of the first six months of the JAO in Seattle found that things were running smoothly. “The horror story of litigious employees clogging the courtrooms and dragging employers into the courtroom did not occur,” says Harrell, while noting that workplace safety hasn’t deteriorated.

“It’s gone very well, extremely well,” Harrell tells me. “Not only in the eyes of the advocates, but even in eyes the businesses, many of whom objected vehemently.”

Most importantly, it’s gone well for people who now have jobs for which they might not have otherwise been considered.

“My wife and I were at Home Depot the other day, and a guy came up to me and just thanked me profusely,” Harrell says. “He said that had it not been for (the law), he wouldn’t have been able to meet the manager of the store and get hired. He was able to sell himself, if you will, before the criminal inquiry had to come about.

“I would recommend it strongly (for Tacoma),” Harrell concluded.

So would I.