City Hall removes prior conviction question from job applications

City Hall removes prior conviction question from job applications
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As the Virginia General Assembly hotly debated dropping questions about potential employees’ criminal convictions on applications for jobs at state agencies, city leaders made a decision of their own: It’s time to ban the box.

City Manager Rashad Young began looking at the issue as it gained attention in Richmond during this year’s legislative session. Though the “ban the box” movement — so-named for the question about a prospective employee’s criminal history found on many applications — failed to sway state lawmakers, Young discovered nothing in city code stopping City Hall from unilaterally stripping the inquiry from its job forms.

Last month he instructed city agencies to remove them administratively.

“We felt like we didn’t need a law to pass to regulate how we conduct our recruitment process,” Young said. “[It] just makes good public policy.”

Ex-offenders and their advocates argue that requiring job seekers to divulge past convictions in the first step of the hiring process makes it much more difficult for otherwise-qualified candidates to land interviews, much less employment offers. And chronic unemployment is a leading cause of recidivism.

Under Alexandria’s updated policy, city hiring managers will not ask about prior criminal convictions — in most cases — until they conduct a background check of a prospective employee. Officials still will ask about previous convictions for public safety jobs and positions requiring interaction with children or other vulnerable populations.

“We know for sure that if you’ve got criminal convictions, 99 percent of the time you won’t be able to be a police officer, so why wait until the end of the process to do that?” Young argued. “But there are many, many more jobs in the city where that’s not a necessary piece of information on the front end.”

Young said including a prior convictions question in job applications provides an easy way for employers to eliminate candidates without ever examining their qualifications. It also can act as a deterrent, keeping ex-offenders from applying in the first place.

“They might say, ‘Oh, I have this conviction, so why even apply?’” Young said. “’I know they won’t give me a chance.’”

Mayor Bill Euille applauded Young’s efforts to make the hiring process more equitable for individuals trying to stay on the straight and narrow.

“It’s important for folks to know that, if they apply for city positions and have a prior conviction, that won’t be held against them,” he said. “At least this way it gets these folks the opportunity to get in the door to be interviewed.”

Young said he has seen first hand the struggles that ex-offenders face finding employment.

“I have a colleague who is in his 30s now, but when he was 19, he had a felony charge and conviction for getting into a fight,” he said. “Since then, he’s been a stellar individual, and although he has a job now, he was looking for a different one, and it dogged him.

“A lot of people just write you off when they find out about [a prior conviction], so it was a real issue for him to even feel comfortable applying to jobs and feel like [he would] get a fair shake.”