Boston bans the box

Ex-offender advocates in Boston knew that something had to be done. They were making little progress in helping Massachusetts ex-offenders whose criminal histories–” officially referred to as “Criminal Offender Record Information”–”are logged in the state database.

So in 2004, Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI, a statewide coalition of advocates, led the push for an ordinance to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices based on criminal records.

In 2005, they succeeded: Boston prohibited city agencies and private businesses that have contracts with the city from inquiring about criminal history in job applications. The ordinance marked a new approach in an effort to prevent discriminatory hiring practices for ex-offenders.

Until the ordinance’s passage, job applicants were asked to check a box in an application form if they had either a felony or misdemeanor conviction. Ban the Box, as the ordinance is known, eliminated this box.

The rule initially applied to all city government positions except in law enforcement or those that require “unsupervised contact” with youth, the elderly or disabled. The ordinance was later expanded to the more than 3,000 private vendors that do business with the city.

The ordinance was designed to allow job applicants to be judged not by their criminal records but by their qualifications, said Horace Small, executive director of Union of Minority Neighborhoods.

Small said this is important in a state like Massachusetts, where criminal record checks often turn up confusing and hard-to-read reports that can be easily misinterpreted.

For decades, many advocates and legal aid organizations have attempted to deal with the issue of criminal records and re-entry by pushing for legislation that would seal or expunge criminal records. But such efforts have met fierce opposition from business and media interest groups.

That’s why advocates in Boston say pushing for hiring reform at the municipal level seemed to be a good starting point. It could potentially make thousands of jobs available for ex-offenders, while they worked on the larger issue of pushing state legislation.

Advocates in other cities, like Minneapolis and San Francisco, have been following suit, helping implement similar fair hiring practices for ex-offenders. In 2006, Chicago reformed its hiring policies, removing the question of a criminal background in job applications. Since then, advocates have been attempting to push more comprehensive reform through the city council.

Michael Sweig, public policy liaison for Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based ex-offender advocacy organization, said he wants to see the ordinance expanded to include city vendors.

“It’s a no-lose proposition to be hiring anybody who can work. When you make a worker out of someone who is unemployed, you’ve solved the kind of stigma problems and job obstacles that the formerly incarcerated have,” he said. But for all its good intentions on paper, some Boston advocates say the Ban the Box ordinance still has a lot of room to be improved in practice.

Aaron Tanaka, executive director for the Boston Workers Alliance, said his groups’ routine compliance checks on private vendors show that the ordinance lacks a mechanism to ensure compliance.

The ordinance gives the city the right to terminate contracts with vendors found not to be in compliance, but the city has yet to terminate any vendor contracts.

“What we found was that a lot of businesses–”in fact, I would say at this point, the majority of businesses that we’ve gone around to–”have not made any significant changes in their hiring policies from what we can tell,” he said.

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