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L.A. Votes To 'Ban The Box,' Lowering Barriers To Employment For Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

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Councilman Curren D. Price stands with members of Homeboy Industries and other supporters at a press conference Wednesday morning. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
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Do you know that little box on an initial job application that asks if you have ever been convicted of a felony? For many formerly incarcerated individuals, that small box acts as a massive barrier to employment—effectively locking them out of the job market, regardless of their other qualifications. Research has shown that checking that box reduces an applicant's likelihood of receiving an offer or a callback by nearly 50 percent. Employment plays a significant factor in reducing recidivism, but thousands of Angelenos who have already served their time often struggle to be considered for basic jobs.

This will be changing soon; on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pass the Fair Chance Initiative, an ordinance that prohibits most employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history until a conditional job offer has been made. The measure was approved on a 12-1 vote; Councilman Mitch Englander was the lone dissenter. The ordinance will apply to all city contractors and private employers with ten or more employees. A number of exemptions will apply for fields such as law enforcement and child care.

The ordinance, which was first proposed by Councilmember Curren D Price back in 2014, falls in line with a nationwide movement to help those with criminal records find regular employment. The movement issued a call to "ban the box" (the "box" meaning the check box indicating if you have a criminal record), and it has been gaining traction in the past couple years. In 2015, President Obama ordered federal agencies to refrain from asking applicants about their criminal history until later in the hiring process. According to NPR, as of July of this year, more than 100 jurisdictions in 23 states have passed laws that prohibit public agencies from asking about one's criminal history.

The Fair Chance Initiative campaign was spearheaded by LA Voice, Homeboy Industries, and All of Us or None. Proponents of the ordinance argue that the ability to find employment is a major deterrent against recidivism. As cited at the National Employment Law Project, a 2008 study by the not-profit Safer Foundation reported that, among the formerly incarcerated, 16% of individuals resorted back to crime if they've had one year of employment. This is compared the to 52.3% recidivism rate for everyone released by the Department of Correction. NELP also noted that nearly half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a criminal record; the inability for the formerly incarcerated to find a job, then, has effects that are far-reaching.

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For Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, the reasons also go beyond the statistics. He believes the Fair Chance Initiative touches on an issue of morality as well. "We believe in a God of second chances. Yet every day, nearly one in three of our brothers or sisters has been denied an opportunity for a second chance by a little check box on job applications—a little box that measures their present by the worst choice in their past," Boyle said. "With this vote, the voices at the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens."

Jose Osuna, director of external affairs at Homeboy Industries, said that the job application process has, up until now, prolonged punishment for individuals who have already served time for their crimes. "At Homeboy Industries, we believe that when people have paid their dues, they do not deserve a life sentence of joblessness," Osuna said.

The policies may have an unexpected effect, however. As noted at the Atlantic, the policies may actually increase discriminatory hiring. A joint research conducted by the University of Virginia and the University of Oregon suggested that the policies decreased the chances of employment by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. The possible reason for this is, um, pretty messed up. Researchers believe that, when hiring agents don't have a criminal history to work with, they fall back on stereotypes about racial minorities to guide the process. Which is to also say that, if the effects are real, they have nothing to do with the ban-the-box movement, and more so with the problematic attitudes of hiring agents. "Rather than identifying the root of the problem, the argument blames the reform," said a report by the NELP. It went on to state:

The key question raised by the new studies is not whether ban-the-box has helped increase employment of people with records. Nor is the question whether racial profiling in the form of "statistical discrimination" exists and plays a part in denying employment opportunities to African-American men and other people of color. Those questions have both been previously answered in the affirmative.

Having passed, the ordinance is expected to be enforced by the City's Office of Wage Standards. If a violation is reported, the complainant may receive up to $500 if the allegations are upheld. The law is expected to go into effect on January 1.