Tablet Opinion

Bob Ray Sanders: Ex-offenders deserve unbiased look from employers

Every year, most of about 6,000 people who return “home” to Tarrant County will be shunned by society as if they had the plague.

These men and women are coming back stamped with a label that will be with them the rest of their lives: “Ex-offender.”

The majority have been paroled and placed under community supervision, which among other things requires that they have a job and pay a variety of fees.

Although most want to work, many ex-convicts will tell you that among their greatest fears is filling out a job application and having to answer the most dreaded question: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

Checking the “yes” box often effectively ends the application process. And yet if they lie and get hired, that can become cause for dismissal when the employer learns the truth — which can happen when a parole officer shows up for an unannounced visit.

That box also makes it difficult to find a place to live, because many apartment complexes will not rent to ex-offenders.

Having no job, no home and little family or community support puts a lot of ex-felons on a path right back to prison.

There is a national movement aimed at breaking down the employment barrier just a little, and it is catching on. The “Ban the Box” campaign, which began in 2004, asks employers to remove the “Have you ever been convicted?” question from their job application forms.

The idea is that the employer will have a chance to meet the prospective employee before learning that he or she has a criminal background.

Organizers of the campaign initially focused on government agencies, asking them to change their application process. To date, more than 45 cities and counties have removed the conviction question.

Last month Louisville (Ky.) Metro Council voted unanimously to adopt a law that prohibits the question on the city’s job applications and those of many of its 26,000 vendors, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported. Louisville joins New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and others in the ban.

Such ordinances “do not ban background checks, but instead tell employers to postpone them until later in the hiring process, so that job applicants can be reviewed on their qualifications first,” the NELP said in a news release. “The policy seeks to mitigate the stigma of a conviction that makes it so difficult even for highly qualified job-seekers to be fairly considered for work.”

There are several initiatives in Tarrant County aimed at helping former inmates re-enter society, including some that try to identify employers willing to give an ex-convict a chance.

Texas ReEntry Services Inc., which sees 1,800 to 2,200 clients a year, has a program that includes a three-day job-readiness class with emphasis on résumé preparation, the application process, grooming and motivation, said Edward Griffin, the agency’s employment specialist.

Griffin is not necessarily a fan of “Ban the Box,” explaining that he tells his clients to be open and honest while taking responsibility for their crimes and showing remorse for their mistakes. He also tells them how they can work the fact that they’ve been convicted into the conversation during an interview and then quickly get to talking about the education and skills they would bring to the job.

If the question about conviction is never raised, Griffin said, an employer can be blindsided once he or she finds out, and that would not be good for the prospective employee.

“Ban the Box” is not intended to hide an individual’s past, but simply to allow an employer to get to know other things about a person before learning that he or she has a criminal record.

It about time that cities and counties, as well as private companies, in North Texas consider this idea.