In another sign the community is moving ahead with criminal justice reforms, the city of Spokane is planning to delete the “crime box” on initial job applications.
Currently, many job applicants with an arrest or conviction in their past decline to apply for city jobs, figuring their criminal histories will eliminate them. The box discourages the search for work, which increases the risk of reoffending.
This doesn’t mean criminal history will never be a part of the process. Once the city determines applicants meet the minimum qualifications, it can proceed with background checks and inquire about arrests and convictions. If it’s decided an offense would in some way harm job performance, the city could still disqualify on that score.
The policy change does not apply to law enforcement positions.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission already bars employers from automatically denying job applicants based on criminal histories. But many people eliminate themselves – rather than lie – when then they see the crime box on applications. And many employers automatically reject such applicants, regardless of the law.
The city can’t urge businesses to do the right thing unless it does.
The change is designed to offer hope by giving applicants a chance to explain their histories and how they might have changed. The box doesn’t offer people a way to talk about a bad decision or youthful indiscretion that’s no longer a true reflection of their character. The box makes it more difficult for minorities to break the cycle of crime and unemployment.
As James Wilburn, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said, “It’s been a hopeless situation for many families.”
The National Employment Law Project estimates that 70 million Americans – or one in four – have a criminal history. Technology has made background checks easier. As a consequence, it can be more difficult to find honest work after paying a debt to society. It’s a factor to consider the next time you wonder why some people aren’t looking for work. Many people with criminal histories feel it’s fruitless to try.
Yet, a job is the most reliable way to leave a life of crime. Realizing this, prisons now offer training on how to re-enter society as a productive citizen. About 2 million Americans are serving time, and most of them will be released at some point. Without a second chance, they’ll remain boxed in.
At least 66 state and local governments have joined the “ban the box” movement, according to the National Employment Law Project, including Seattle, Boston, New York and Multnomah County (Portland). As Spokane Mayor David Condon notes in his letter to the Civil Service Commission, the change reflects the principles embodied in this community’s “Blue Print for Reform,” which charts a more effective criminal justice course.
The crime question on initial job applications is at cross-purposes with smart justice. It’s an unwitting accomplice to recidivism and wasteful spending on prisons and jails.