Excerpted from a Houston Public Media Blog by Andrew Schneider

Harris County leaders on January 4 adopted a policy that will ban most county departments from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history.

County Attorney Christian Menefee — who proposed the program — called this “banning the box,” a reference to the box on county employment applications where applicants must check whether they have a criminal record.

Menefee said the question of a criminal record frequently discourages many otherwise-qualified job seekers from even applying since some potential employers immediately discard candidates with non-violent criminal records.

“It will prohibit departments from considering an applicant’s record of arrest if that arrest did not result in a conviction, or if it did and it was expunged or sealed, or it’s a misdemeanor for which no jail time can be sentenced,” Menefee said.

The policy will allow departments to do a criminal background check and consider that check only after a conditional offer of employment has been made. Menefee said that when the background check is done later in the process, potential employers are more likely to consider the context of the applicant’s record, as well as their relevant skills and experience.

“The policy will prohibit blanket disqualification of applicants solely because they have a conviction,” Menefee said. “Instead, what it’s going to call for is an individualized assessment of various factors, including what was the nature of the offense. What is the position that the applicant is applying for?”

The policy only applies to departments led by county appointees, not elected officials, though elected officials are free to adopt it within their own offices. It also includes exceptions for jobs in law enforcement and other sensitive areas. The measure passed commissioners court by 3-2 on a party-line vote.

“The significance is not new,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “There have been about 20 years of research on this. It’s not that you don’t ask about the background. It’s that when you put the box up front, people just don’t apply.”

County Attorney Menefee stressed that the policy, which he called the Fair Chance Policy, has been adopted by governors of both parties in 37 states and in more than 150 cities and counties around the country. He argued that the policy was ultimately a public safety measure.

“This policy is about decreasing recidivism,” Menefee said. “We know the number one factor for decreasing recidivism amongst ex-offenders is ensuring they are able to obtain and maintain stable employment.”

That argument was a hard sell for the court’s two Republican members. Commissioner Tom Ramsey said he understood the spirit of the policy, but emphasized the importance of providing a safe workplace for county employees.

“I think of the 15,000-plus Harris County employees that depend on us to provide a safe workplace,” he said. “To say you can’t know or ask that question before you decide to hire, I think that could have some unintended consequences.”

Democratic Commissioner Adrian Garcia spoke favorably of the policy, referring to job fairs held in the Harris County Jail during Garcia’s time as county sheriff. Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle responded that such job fairs were, in fact, an argument against the policy change.

“What you described of job fairs in the jail is full disclosure,” Cagle said, “And I am a firm believer that we need to do everything possible to help those (ex-offenders) to become productive, but I do not believe that less light and not disclosing things promotes the public good will.”

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