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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Burgess, advocates seek to box out criminal-history questions on job applications

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 2:51 PM

Citing a "humanitarian civil rights issue," advocates want to amend the city's hiring process, so that job applications for many government posts no longer inquire about an applicant's criminal history.

Currently, city job applications require candidates to check a "yes" or "no" box about whether they have been convicted "of any felony of the law." A subsequent line requires applicants to describe the offense.

But in a joint press conference and post-agenda meeting with City Council members Tuesday, representatives from the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project, Black Political Empowerment Project, Urban League and other groups asked that the box be stricken.

"In the right situations, with appropriately placed inquiry, criminal background checks promote safety and security at the workplace," said Dean Williams, director of the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project. "However, imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, it can promote public-safety issues and can also be illegal under civil rights laws."

Advocates joined council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, who proposed a bill this spring to remove the box from city applications. (Burgess' bill exempts applications for public-safety positions like policework and firefighting; applications for those posts would still require a candidate to disclose any criminal history.) Yesterday, Burgess announced plans to expand his legislation to cover vendors who do business with the city.

"It is important that a criminal conviction doesn't become a life sentence," Burgess said. "These are people who have paid their debt to society and ere entitled to employment."

Burgess says that his bill wouldn't require the city to hire anyone with a conviction. Nor would it prevent the city from asking about a criminal background; it would only delay that question until after the rest of the applicants' history had been considered. "After the first interviews, if they are being seriously considered for the job, [the city] has every right to ask," Burgess says. "Then that person -- in person -- can defend or give context for their life history."

The FCCP put forward its own legislation at a post-agenda yesterday. The group's legislation extends beyond government hires, prohibiting all private employers within city limits from asking about criminal records on their written applications. The FCCP bill looks to the city's Commission on Human Relations, which investigates claims of discrimination, to enforce the measure.

"The problem with the box is that it doesn't distinguish between a person who has committed a low-level offense many years ago and has been completely rehabilitated versus a person who has recently committed a violent crime," says Williams.

Advocates met with Burgess and councilor Bill Peduto yesterday at a post-agenda hearing on Burgess's bill. Burgess said he planned to put forward a compromise version of his legislation, with hopes of passing it by the end of the year.

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