Simply forbidding employers from asking about people’s criminal history on job applications — typically by asking them to check a box — isn’t enough to radically transform the employment landscape in Rochester, says Jamie Dougherty, a research associate at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. It probably also won’t do much to reduce recidivism or improve public safety.
But it may prevent employers from unconsciously dismissing applicants with criminal records out of hand, Dougherty says.
Dougherty is part of the Opportunity to Compete committee, which has been working with City Council member Adam McFadden on “ban the box” legislation. The committee is made up of people who have worked with ex-offenders trying to reintegrate into society. Dougherty is a former re-entry case manager.
McFadden’s legislation, which was expected to pass Council on May 20, prohibits public and private employers in the City of Rochester from asking people about their criminal history on job applications. They’d have to wait until after the initial job interview, and employers would not be prevented from doing background checks. Violators would face a $500 penalty the first time, the legislation says, and a $1,000 penalty for each subsequent offense.
The legislation’s purpose is to help eliminate discrimination against ex-offenders. Ban-the-box initiatives are gaining steam nationwide, Dougherty says. Policies are in place in at least 10 states and 56 cities, according to a report by the Center for Public Safety Initiatives. (The report is below.)
“In the end, this ordinance doesn’t affect that much, really,” Dougherty says. “It sort of just avoids unconscious bias because people aren’t using it as a screening tool, which every employer says they don’t do, but if we just get down to it and admit it, everybody would do that.”
The wording on job applications varies, she says, but employers often ask generally if an applicant has been convicted of a crime. The problem is that many employers see all ex-offenders as hardened criminals, she says, regardless of the crime.
“Most people think that if you went to prison, that you must have killed someone,” Dougherty says. “And that’s not the reality. So what this ordinance sort of does is level the playing field so that people with, like, a petit larceny conviction 37 years ago aren’t looked at the same as the guy who just got out of prison for murder — because right now they are.”
Employers also tend to attribute negative qualities such as tardiness and substance abuse to people with criminal records, the center’s report says, even when ex-offenders’ resumes and qualifications are identical to other applicants’ submissions.
And since minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, they are the ones who suffer the most from the unconscious bias Dougherty talks about.
Dougherty says she encourages ex-offenders to explain their stories to prospective employers, because it humanizes them.
She says that much more research is needed to determine the efficacy of ban-the-box policies. But the center’s report says bold claims about what the policy can do are suspect because many factors beyond a question on a job application drive recidivism and unemployment, for example.
The Opportunity to Compete committee plans an outreach effort, Dougherty says, to educate employers and applicants about ban the box.
“If it’s going to be effective, it has to be enforced well,” she says, “and understood well by both the applicants and the employers.”