The National Employment Law Project ("NELP") and other organizations and persons are engaging in a campaign called "Ban the Box." The project title refers to the box on an employment questionnaire that asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"
Assembly member Dickinson has introduced AB 1831 that would, if enacted, prevent a local agency from making an inquiry regarding, or considering the criminal history of any applicant in the initial employment application. An inquiry or a background check into an applicant's criminal history would be authorized only after it was determined whether the applicant possesses the skills commensurate with the position.
The theory is that persons with criminal history face an insurmountable hurdle in obtaining a job after a criminal conviction. Moreover, activists contend that a person with a job is less likely to commit another crime.
Let me start by saying that I own a company, Sierra HR Partners, that conducts background checks. (If you don't use Sierra HR, you should. http://www.sierrahr.com/ There are so many background investigation companies who don't do it right and who could get you into legal hot water!) And I agree with the advice of Brenda Budke, Sierra HR's Executive Director, that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. I tell my clients to conduct background checks on everyone they intend to hire. You learn so many valuable things from background investigations -- criminal or otherwise.
But I am also sympathetic to the plight of persons who find it difficult to locate employment after a criminal conviction. I know, you're telling me that the criminal should have thought about the consequences before engaging in a criminal act! Yes, that is true. But how many of us have engaged in a rash act, without thought or consideration of the consequences? Perhaps there are many of us who just didn't get caught. Or perhaps some of us could afford a good lawyer. Is the line between most of us in society so thick that a meaningful distinction can be made among us without a thorough examination of all the facts?
I am not sure that AB 1831 is the answer. For example, I could probably determine that a person had been incarcerated by asking questions about employment history. "So what's with the 3-year gap in employment?" would be the question. And at that point, what is the applicant to do? Lie? Tough predicament. And eventually the employer will conduct a background check. And what about the tort system -- will it adopt a safe harbor for employers who hire persons convicted of crimes? And even without conducting a check, by the way an applicant comports him or herself, an employer has a good idea of his/her characteristics. Tattoos, dark prison boots and denim are all give aways of an uncomfortable past.
We certainly need to do something in society to assist those who have made bad choices reform. Activists would argue that a presumption of rehabilitation should accompany release from prison. Wow! What planet are you from???? Not a very likely presumption given the state of our prison system. But perhaps we could spend less money on incarceration and prison guard salaries if we had meaningful opportunities and programs to try and rehabilitate persons convicted of a crime.
Certainly, I would want that chance if I was in that situation. And I would want that opportunity for family and friends. Is it just "the other guy" who shouldn't get that opportunity?
I am interested in hearing your thoughts on AB 1831 and how to integrate persons convicted of crimes back into society in a meaningful way.