Ban the box? Not yet

Employers don’t need to deprive themselves of essential data to be fair to job applicants with criminal pasts


The Lucas County Board of Commissioners is set to vote today on a proposal that would make it harder for county departments to find out whether job applicants have criminal records. Board members should postpone that vote until they can review the issue more thoroughly.

The proposed resolution would delete from the county’s standard job form a question that asks applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime. The county still could run criminal background checks of candidates who move past the initial application process.

Advocates of the nationwide “ban the box” movement assert that asking about an applicant’s criminal history can discourage public and private employers from considering well-qualified job candidates. As the nation’s prison population has exploded in recent decades, they argue, ex-offenders — especially African-Americans — face rising barriers to pursuing rehabilitation and obtaining gainful employment that can enable them to support families and make a return to prison less likely. Once offenders have served their sentences, the question arises, why should they endure the risk of continued discrimination?

But in some instances, a criminal record surely would be relevant for a hiring manager to know. Would the county place a sex offender in the Department of Job and Family Services? A convicted embezzler in the treasurer’s office?

County officials say their hiring processes still would spot such red flags. But removing the criminal-history question from the job application could complicate those efforts and raise the possibility of an oversight or error.

The county proposal would apply only to those departments that report directly to the Board of Commissioners, such as the court clerk’s office and the dog warden’s operation. But elsewhere across the country, ban-the-box measures apply to much larger city and state governments, private businesses with government contracts, and other private employers.

Some employers say such measures can place their customers and workers, and the institution or company itself, at greater risk of potential crime. They could be liable to lawsuits, they say, if an ex-offender hurts someone on the job. Why, they ask, should they not be allowed to favor job applicants with clean records?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers a workable compromise. Instead of imposing across-the-board bans on criminal checks at any stage of the hiring process, employers are urged to consider information about an applicant’s criminal past in the context of how serious the crime was, how long ago it occurred, and how closely related it is to the job in question. Racial or other bias in such matters properly remains illegal.

It’s to be hoped that county officials — and all other employers — are enlightened enough not to bar applicants with minor or long-ago criminal histories that are irrelevant to the jobs they seek. But depriving themselves of potentially essential data won’t advance that goal.

At the least, the proposal requires more scrutiny — including extensive public hearings — than the commissioners have given it. Until they can provide such attention, they should delay their vote.