Last night, Council chambers was full and the stories that were shared by the people in the room were sometimes painful, sometimes transformational, but very powerful. The topic was a proposed ordinance by CM Beggs that would require employers to remove the criminal record box from job applications and inquire about criminal record later in the hiring process. This effort is called “ban the box” or “fair chance hiring.” Council voted to approve this policy on a 5-2 vote (Fagan and Mumm no) after hours of public testimony. The ordinance goes into effect in 2018, but there are no fines or penalties for at least one year to allow a period for education and outreach and to allow businesses time to adjust application materials, etc.
To be honest, before 2014 I was not aware of how “the box” impacted people in the City or in my own neighborhood. If you have never been convicted of a crime, you don’t check it, you move on, and you hope to get a call back for an interview. If you have been convicted of a crime, however, that box can be a barrier to ever getting an interview and ever getting a job. Each person’s story is unique: what crime was committed, whether or not there was a victim involved, how many years ago, etc. Over the past several years, I have taken the time to listen and better understand the stories and hear from people who have criminal records. And there are many in our community — thousands of people. They are my neighbors. They are parents. Many want to work. They want to prove themselves and provide for their children. But the barriers can be high to reentering the community if they need to create new support systems, get a higher education, find housing, and find employment. The box can be a barrier to some if not all of these needs.
I believe in the right of businesses to decide who they want to employ and to check into potential employee’s history and background. And there are jobs where the Federal Government says you CANNOT have a criminal history (teachers, working with children, law enforcement, etc). But are we putting up an artificial barrier to employment when we force people to check a box before we’ve considered their resume? I’ve thought long and hard on this. I’ve listened. I’ve read studies from around the country. I voted to support this ordinance because I believe in opportunity. To truly provide opportunity to all people, even those who have committed a crime and done the time, it is time to remove the box as an initial screening tool.
The other reason I supported the ordinance is purely practical and financial. I’ve supported a lot criminal justice reform practices at the City, like providing alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. I’ve supported Community Court and triage programs for homeless individuals and veterans. I’ve supported apprenticeship programs and reentry job training programs. I’m on the Board of Priority Spokane where we are working to stabilize families at Logan and Deer Park elementary schools by ensuring they have safe housing and access to employment, nutrition and education resources.
We invest millions of public dollars in jails. We also invest millions in evidence-based practices that are proven to prevent recidivism and to offer a greater opportunity to kids who have struggled with inequity based on income, race and growing up with an incarcerated family member. However, after all this public investment and retraining and reform, if someone or someone’s parent is going to be screened out of most opportunities by a box, we are wasting a lot of time and public dollars. Especially when that person and his/her family ends up on public assistance. That’s the practical part of me speaking. I hate investing public dollars and not getting the outcomes our community needs. We need people working and we need our economy to be strong.
Will passing this ordinance mean everyone with a record will find work? No. Will passing this ordinance mean you have to hire a felon? No. But taking the box off the application will give people a more equitable opportunity to get hired. It’s still up to our community to navigate these issues. This is just one policy and it is a reactive more than a proactive strategy. We have a lot more work to do to PREVENT crime and incarceration, especially in lower-mod income neighborhoods in NE Spokane. We need to roll up our sleeves and focus on the kids and young adults in our neighborhoods and ensure every child reaches his/her full potential despite what zip code they grow up in. This is the promise of the future!