Proposal seeks to improve prospects for the formerly incarcerated

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Sup. Jane Kim's proposal seeks to eliminate bias against people who've served time behind bars.

Questions concerning an individual's criminal history have been banned from city agency employment applications in San Francisco since 2006. Now Sup. Jane Kim has proposed legislation to expand the reach of that policy into the private sector and affordable housing.

Introduced at the Board of Supervisors Tue/10, Kim’s legislation seeks to eliminate the bias of first impression that has long plagued the formerly incarcerated.

The Fair Chance ordinance builds upon existing city and state-level fair hiring policies, known as "ban the box" policies, already in place. It proposes to extend them to private businesses and affordable housing providers, as a way to remove "unnecessary barriers to stable housing and employment for individuals with conviction records," according to a description of the legislation issued by Kim’s office.

"The most important thing to remember is that this is not a hiring mandate,” Kim explained in an interview. “We just want to create a process that's based on merits.” She added, "We've also made it so you can only examine a persons arrest record for the last seven years in order to try to establish some sort of hiring standard."

Existing "Ban the box" policies forbid employers in the public sector from asking prospective employees about prior criminal convictions in the early application process — essentially eliminating the polarizing "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" check box from online and paper employment applications. Instead, it requires those that would request a background check to at least meet the person in question first. 

And it is a popular theme: "ban the box" policies in some form can be found in 10 states and more than 50 cities nationwide. Gov. Jerry Brown signed California's version into law back in October, while the city of Richmond established one of the most progressive "ban the box" policies in America, joining Seattle and Philadelphia as major metropolitan areas to have extended the ban into the private sector.

"Our office has been working on this since January, and we've spent lots of time talking to other states and municipalities about what has worked for them," Kim said.

Under San Francisco's current "ban the box" policy, individuals with prior felony convictions are permitted to withhold the potentially damning information only if they are applying for a position with the city.

But under the Fair Chance Ordinance, which is co-sponsored by Sup. Malia Cohen, that practice would be extended to all jobseekers looking for private-sector work, at establishments with staffs larger than 20 people, as well as applicants for public housing.

The Fair Chance Ordinance wouldn't place an outright ban on criminal inquiries, just require employers to hold off on background checks until after the interview, theoretically allowing recently integrated individuals an opportunity to contextualize their past indiscretions.

The idea behind the ban is simple. In the age of impersonal Internet applications, prospective employees are often quickly assessed in a binary manner, separating candidates into categories of hire-able or not the instant their applications are submitted.

And in an ultra-competitive job market, checking a box that condemns your past can condemn your future. There have been myriad reports about folks whose applications have been thrown out the moment that checked box is detected, but under Fair Chance, prospective employees would have the opportunity to get in front of their past.

And that's the idea. “We're just trying to help people get a foot in the door,” Kim said. “And we’re just trying to get folks to apply. A lot of [formerly incarcerated individuals] won't even apply for jobs, because of the ‘box.’”