Panel wants end to crime query on job applications

Sunday, May 11, 2014 | 7:32 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Public and private employers in Columbia would be barred from putting questions about job seekers' criminal backgrounds on applications under a proposal from a study group that says the questions mean automatic rejection for many ex-offenders.

The recommendation approved at a recent meeting of the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence would allow the city and private businesses to ask if an applicant has a felony conviction only in a face-to-face interview.

More than 60 cities nationwide, including Kansas City, have adopted what have come to be known as "ban the box" policies for public-sector employment. But only four extend the policy to private companies, according to Missourian reporting.

The Columbia task force weighed three options: requiring the city to remove the question from job applications, requiring the city and city contractors to do so and requiring every Columbia 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."

The panel's recommendation goes next to the City Council, which will refine and revise it after gathering public response.

Data compiled by the task force has shown that former inmates who work full time have the lowest rates of reoffending and returning to prison. The panel found that employers who see the box on criminal history checked often ignore applications even from job seekers who are qualified for a position.

Kansas City's ordinance, adopted in April 2013, keeps the question off applications for public employment but also prohibits using or accessing applicants' criminal records in several circumstances, including sentences that were suspended or expunged or misdemeanor convictions with no jail time, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune. The city allows background checks only on applicants for municipal jobs if they're qualified and have been interviewed.

Columbia task force co-chairman Michael Trapp, who serves on City Council, said that because the panel's proposal 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 Columbia proposal would still allow for job seekers to be rejected if they acknowledge a felony conviction in a face-to-face interview. However, task force members believe that getting people to the interview before revealing that information will increase their chances of being hired.

Members agreed that, as with Kansas City's policy, certain other statutory limits on hiring from the state and federal levels would be adhered to.

"I don't think anyone's advocating we hire pedophiles at our day cares or people convicted of fraud at our banks," task force member Dan Hanneken said.

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