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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County won’t ask job applicants about their criminal records

After announcing they could not agree on a new colleague, Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French vote to let Gov. Jay Inslee make the selection for them on Sept. 12, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Board of Commissioners voted this week to remove questions about past criminal convictions from county job applications.

The new hiring policy, approved Tuesday by Republican Commissioners Al French, Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns, means job applicants will no longer be asked to disclose criminal convictions from the past 10 years, and the county will not conduct a background check until after it determines a candidate is otherwise qualified.

Nationwide, more than 150 cities and counties have moved to “ban the box” and give candidates with convictions a fairer chance of getting hired, according to the National Employment Law Project. The city of Spokane joined that list in 2014.

“Once you have paid your debt to society, why should that impede your effort to gain employment?” French said Friday.

He put “the box” in the category of long-standing county policies that “quite frankly, don’t make any sense” and should be changed, he said.

The county’s human resources department says 4 percent of the nearly 14,000 applications it processed in 2016 were eliminated because of a prior criminal conviction.

The new policy does not apply to departments that deal with public safety, including the courts, sheriff’s office and detention services. It also does not apply to private-sector jobs.

State lawmakers in the House and Senate have tried unsuccessfully to pass measures that would ban most private employers from asking applicants about possible criminal records. Among the sponsors of those bills are Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner and Democratic Rep. Marcus Ricceli.

Before he became a wildland firefighter, community volunteer and president of the Spokane NAACP, Kurtis Robinson spent time in jail and kicked a cocaine addiction. He has worked with a local group called I Did the Time.

Robinson said that with all the housing and job barriers imposed on the formerly incarcerated, he got back on his feet “only through the intervention of many people over a sustained period of time.”

He said policies like “the box” exacerbate “the media-driven perception that if we committed a crime, then we are a criminal” and violates “the promise that we paid our dues and can begin to rebuild our lives and become productive members of society.”

Robinson said many more criminal justice reforms are needed, but he’s encouraged to see county leaders working proactively.

“The bottom line is, it’s a start,” he said.