Update: The Council on Criminal Justice Reform unanimously approved a preliminary recommendation to “Ban the Box” on Georgia state government job applications during its Wednesday, December 18 meeting. Exceptions to “Ban the Box” would include public safety positions and any job in which a felony conviction is an automatic disqualification. The Council will vote to approve its final report in early January. Recommendations would require legislation during the 2014 General Assembly.
By Mike Klein
Should Georgia become the eleventh state to “Ban the Box?” You could be excused for asking, what box? “The Box” on many public and private sector employment applications asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” On the Georgia state government employment application it is the fourth question on a five-page form, directly after name, U.S. citizenship status, alien authorized to work in the United States status and whether you were previously dismissed from a Georgia government job.
Having a job is widely regarded as being perhaps the most significant factor that will determine whether a former incarcerated offender can successfully transition back into the community. Work means steady income which brings stability which results in a better chance that the former offender will have a residence. “The Box” is widely regarded as a direct roadblock to employment after incarceration.
“Employers want people to look good, show up on time and they don’t want problems,” says prisoner re-entry specialist Dennis Schrantz who has been hired by Georgia for one year to help implement the state’s re-entry initiative. “Often they never get to the point that they work with offenders because the first box they check says they’ve been convicted of a felony.” Supporters of “Ban the Box” ask that employers consider felony conviction details later in the employment process, not at the front end.
“Our intention is never to hide a person’s background or hide anything from an employer,” says Charmaine Davis, state director for 9 to 5 Atlanta Working Women. “We simply want applicants to be judged on their current skills and qualifications instead of a past mistake.” Davis worked with Atlanta when the city agreed to “Ban the Box” in January 2013.
Ten states have banned the box through legislation or an administrative order, according to the National Employment Law Project, as have more than 50 cities and counties including large cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco. An Atlanta city government “Ban the Box” release said asking about a felony conviction “could potentially prejudice a hiring manager in the process. In an effort to eliminate this potential bias we no longer include these questions on our application.”
The non-partisan Georgia Center for Opportunity supports “Ban the Box” which is also known as “Enhance the Chance.” This month GCO Vice President for Policy Eric Cochling told the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, “Let the state set the example here. If it shows that the state can find qualified applicants in that pool and that they work well, I think we’ve set the stage for being able to make that case to private employers.”
Criminal justice reform council members will meet Wednesday morning at the State Capitol to vote on prisoner re-entry preliminary recommendations. A final report is due to Governor Nathan Deal before the 2014 General Assembly begins next month. Employment has been a primary consideration for the Council, especially how to incentivize employers to consider former offenders and then offer enhanced liability protection.
The federal government administers a six-month insurance product based bond program to provide up to $25,000 protection to employers who hire people whose backgrounds are questionable, including those with criminal records. Basic information is available from the Georgia Department of Labor and much more detail from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Licensure is another subject under scrutiny. Occupational licensing boards have wide latitude to deny licenses to former felony offenders, which seriously limits their job possibilities, especially in skilled trades. “We should follow 21 other states that currently limit the kinds of denials that can be made and require some kind of rational relationship between the license and the crime committed,” said Cochling.
Georgia has about 55,000 adult inmates. The most serious offenders will never get out. For everyone else — more than 90 percent of all adult inmates — the reform focus this year has been how to re-integrate them back into communities and decrease the one-in-three chance that they will return to prison within three years. That is what this is all about. Ideas and strategies that the state is ready to embrace should become more obvious Wednesday morning.
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The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)