By Fred Clasen-Kelly
The Charlotte Observer

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee has removed the box on city job applications that asks candidates to disclose their criminal records.

The move puts Charlotte among a growing roster of cities, including Durham, Seattle and Minneapolis, that have eliminated the question on applications to make it easier for people with criminal histories to get hired.

Critics say the so-called “ban the box” movement poses a danger to employers, co-workers and the public.

But supporters argue that ex-convicts need work, and that under the old hiring process some could be disregarded even when they were highly qualified.

“It will reduce recidivism,” said Jason Huber, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law, who helped lobby city officials for the change. “It sends the message to people who have paid their debt to society that you can get a fair shake.”

Previously, city of Charlotte job applicants were asked: “Have you ever pled guilty to, or been convicted of, a crime other than a minor traffic violation?”

On Friday, officials erased the question on applications for jobs that do not have a public safety or statutory requirement, such as police officer or airport employee.

The change means the city will delay asking about an applicant’s criminal record until later in the hiring process. Officials will continue to conduct background checks on finalists for openings.

“We heard from proponents there were people who were reluctant to apply” because of the question about criminal convictions, said Cheryl Brown, director of human resources. “We don’t want people to feel that way.”

Brown stressed that city officials are “not lowering standards” and that decisions about hiring someone with a criminal conviction would depend on the nature of the offense and how it relates to the job opening.

Seeking ‘flexibility’

Charlotte’s change is relatively modest compared with other cities.

More than 50 cities and counties nationwide have adopted rules banning questions about criminal records on initial job applications. The list includes North Carolina’s Cumberland County, Carrboro and Spring Lake.

Some have passed ordinances forcing government contractors to halt the practice. Others such as Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and Buffalo, N.Y., have extended the rules to private employers, according to the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the laws.

Keith Richardson, a Charlotte city spokesman, said officials tried to strike a balance that would give government contractors “flexibility” in making their hiring decisions.

“We think we found a great middle ground,” Richardson said.

Huber, the Charlotte School of Law professor, said he and other proponents plan to lobby local business leaders to support “ban the box” measures in their hiring.

A spokeswoman for the Charlotte Chamber said the group has looked into the issue, but has not taken a stance.

According to a 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project, about 65 million people – or about 1 in 4 U.S. adults – have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check.

Hiring practices that eliminate candidates early in the process have far-reaching impacts for African-Americans and Latinos. Those groups make up a disproportionate share of prison and jail inmates.

Opposing ‘ban the box’

The Obama administration has urged changes related to the criminal justice system and race. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has said states should repeal laws that ban felons from voting.

Two years ago, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommended that public and private employers stop asking about criminal records on applications. The EEOC also suggested that employers consider whether the crime is related to the job opening.

Some business groups and others have opposed “ban the box” measures.

In Michigan, the state Chamber of Commerce fought a proposal because the group feared businesses could face lawsuits if they hired an ex-convicted who hurt another employee or customer, spokeswoman Wendy Block said.

“Businesses need to make decisions with relevant facts,” Block said. “They are asking businesses to move to stage two of the hiring process with one hand tied behind their back.”

Delaying questions about a job candidate’s criminal background is “just a waste of everybody’s time,” Block said.

Some Charlotte City Council members raised concerns when they debated the issue a year ago. They voted 6-4 to have council’s economic development committee study the topic.

The committee chose to let Carlee decide whether to implement the change.

Council member Michael Barnes, an attorney who chairs the economic development committee, initially opposed removing the question about a job applicant’s criminal past. He said last year that the move could expose the city to negligent hiring lawsuits.

Barnes now says his fears have been allayed. In a brief interview, Barnes said he is confident background checks will weed out any potential problems.

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