*CORRECTION: The task force meeting was held Thursday. The day was incorrect in a previous version of this article.
COLUMBIA — In its first recommendation to the Columbia City Council, the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence unanimously recommended requiring both the city and private businesses to stop asking if a person has been convicted of a felony until they conduct a face-to-face interview.
If council members approve the recommendation, Columbia will be only the fifth city in the country to "ban the box" about felony convictions in both public- and private-sector job applications. Sixty-two cities have done so for all public jobs.
Task force member Christopher Haynes, who was convicted of a crime when he was younger, has experienced how hard it can be to find a job with a criminal record.
"Banning the box is one of the greatest things I've ever heard of," Haynes said.
"Banning the box" is designed to open the doors of the job market to those convicted of crime. Employers who see the box checked often ignore those applications, the task force found, even if the employee is qualified for the position.
The data compiled by the task force has shown that released offenders who work full time have the lowest recidivism rates. The task force began to discuss how "ban the box" can help create job opportunities at its work retreat last Saturday, but no action was taken until Thursday*.
Michael Trapp, task force co-chairman and Second Ward councilman, said that because the policy stems from local conditions in Columbia, there is evidence the program will improve community safety.
"We know it addresses the actual problem that exists in Columbia," Trapp said. "That feels good. It's been a long time coming."
The task force, which first convened in August 2013, has met 18 times. Although members had often said they'd like to make recommendations as soon as possible, they chose to postpone making a decision until after they had gathered data on violent crimes in Columbia.
Task force member Dan Hanneken presented three options to the task force in regard to "ban the box": require the city to remove it, require the city and city contractors to remove it, or require every employer to remove it.
"If we're going to do it, let's just go all the way," task force member Pam Hardin said. "This is something that should have been in place a long time ago."
Although the proposal was unanimously approved, task force member Paul Prevo said he had concerns about how such a sweeping policy would be implemented. Prevo, owner of Tiger Tots Child Development Center, said the state has encouraged him to ask the question on applications to avoid hiring someone who legally can't work for him.
Although employers couldn't ask if applicants had a felony conviction until a face-to-face interview, a "yes" answer could still disqualify candidates, even if there is no legal mandate behind the rejection.
However, task force members believe that getting people to the interview before revealing that information will increase their chances of being hired.
"Columbia is a town that cares about people and believes in second chances," Trapp said. "If there are employers that don't buy into that, let them go on record and come out in front of a large group of folks and tell us that someone should never be done paying for their crimes."
Trapp estimated that the report will make its way before the council in the next month or two. From there, council members will decide whether they want to direct staff to draft an ordinance, if it needs more research or input, or if the city will implement a different version of "ban the box."
Let's Talk CoMo
The task force also continued to move forward on its public forums, called Let's Talk CoMo. Council has approved $1,500 for the task force to promote the events.
The first meeting, geared toward community involvement, will be held in the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services' Public Room, 1005 W. Worley Street. A student-geared session will be held at Douglass High School, 310 N. Providence Road, and a forum focused on parents will be at Lange Middle School, 2201 Smiley Lane.
"The challenging part is to not just get the choir to show up but to get the people who need to be there," said Tyree Byndom, a task force member and Let's Talk CoMo organizer.
The public forums won't happen until the first or second week of September, depending on the locations' availability and school schedules, but task force members stressed the importance of promoting the event early and heavily.
The task force will meet again May 28.