By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service
LANSING—Public employment job applications in Detroit, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Saginaw County no longer ask potentially discriminatory questions such as, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
The so-called “Ban the Box” initiative started in mid-2009 and is intended to give ex-felons an equal opportunity at landing an interview and potential job.
Participating local government can ban the “boxes” on initial applications asking about previous criminal records rather than automatically weeding out qualified candidates.
Removing such questions gives former convicts a chance to get their foot in the door when searching for a job, said Beth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD).
Erica Hicks, Kalamazoo human resources assistant, said “Banning the Box” makes applicants feel more comfortable, but not many ex-felons have applied since the initiative began in April.
She said the city hasn’t yet reviewed the ban’s effectiveness.
Those cities prohibit such questions for government prospects through local ordinances. Private businesses can choose to do the same.
Eric Lambert, the Wayne State University criminal justice chair who researches felons’ post-release behavior, said many businesses don’t conduct detailed criminal record checks if they’re needed or required for a particular type of work.
In some work forces, ex-felons are at a disadvantage because employers are required to run a criminal search history, as with jobs working with children.
Lambert said, “There’s a stigma attached to being criminally convicted even if it has been many years ago.”
The need for background checks varies by the company, and employers can be legally liable for employees’ sexual or violent behavior, Lambert said.
And Arnovits said, “Cities or counties ban for their own purposes, leading by example. Similarly, you can’t ask if someone is pregnant on a job application.”
Arnovits said it‘s a hard time to get ex-prisoners employed because of the economy, and a criminal background hurts their prospects even if re-entry programs such as job training certify them in special skills, for instance asbestos removal.
John Cordell, a public information specialist at the Department of Corrections, said Michigan releases an average of 12,000 prisoners a year, and now has 21,000 ex-inmates under supervision.
Cordell said, “Prisoners should not be excluded from competing for a job, but many employers do screen out people who mark the box, ‘yes.’”
Lambert said the “Ban the Box” initiative is part of a push for “restorative justice” that helps ex-offenders benefit their communities and bring them back into society instead of ostracizing them.
Lambert said many businesses automatically reject applicants who were convicted of a crime, though employers may not know who the person is, what skills he or she has to offer, and why or when the arrest or conviction occurred.
Applications have two kinds of questions. One asks if the applicant has ever been arrested for a felony, and the other asks if the applicant has been convicted of a felony. Lambert said questioning arrests is misleading since charges may have been dropped or are no longer on one’s record.
So far, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and Connecticut have banned the box statewide and five states are looking into their own ban. More than 20 cities have adopted the initiative.
Ann Arbor has not passed an ordinance, but its applications say that checking ‘yes’ on criminal background questions “is not an automatic bar to employment.”
After the initial application, a job interviewer can ask questions regarding criminal records or background checks.
According to the State Bar, Michigan law doesn’t allow questions about misdemeanor arrests that didn’t end in conviction, but employers can question applicants about felony arrests and convictions.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.