City plans to 'ban the box' on criminal history questions for local job applications

Ex-felons applying for jobs with the Columbus Consolidated Government won't have to disclose criminal history on city applications in the near future.

The city plans to remove questions pertaining to criminal background from all city applications by the middle of the month, said Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell.

The new "ban the box" policy comes on the heels of an executive order signed by Gov. Nathan Deal last month banning the state from requiring job seekers to disclose their criminal histories in the initial application stage.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the governor's executive order gave the city the momentum it needed to move forward with its own "ban the box" policy.

"We actually were already in the process of doing it," Tomlinson said. "But certainly when the governor makes a decision that as to the entire state, and agencies affiliated with the state, that this is something that's good policy, then it makes it so much easier for local communities, counties and municipalities to make that decision too."

On city applications, applicants are currently asked, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor?" And they must click either a "yes" or "no" box in response.

Those who answer yes must then list the city, state, date, incident and charges of all convictions.

The next question asks, "Are you awaiting a trial for a felony or misdemeanor?" And "yes" or "no" again has to be clicked.

Tomlinson said the city has an executive committee that reviews applications of ex-felons being considered for positions, but the committee has received few referrals because many applications are discarded during the application stage.

"The only way someone with a felony record would get to the committee is literally by word of mouth," the mayor said. "Somebody would recommend a relative or friend, somebody they knew in the community who they thought had potential, but had a record."

She said the city has increased its hiring of ex-felons in recent years "because of the desire to broaden the applicant pool to those in our community who really wish to have another shot at things." And "ban the box" will help the city expand the pool even more.

"They will be asked eventually if they have a record," Tomlinson said. "We do background checks on everybody, but the important thing is that they will be allowed to come through the system so we have an opportunity to hear their story.

"And that's really what 'ban the box' is all about -- is giving people the opportunity to tell their story so we can make an educated judgment as to whether this person might well be a very valuable asset for our city."

Tomlinson said some positions would be exempt from the "ban the box" policy.

"We do have (jobs), of course, that will not be eligible, like police officers," she said. "Any violent offender will most probably not be considered at all depending, of course, on the magnitude of that. I would also say they wouldn't be around near children, for instance, and someone who had a history of financial fraud wouldn't go near our finance department."

Everybody's background will be assessed as to the appropriateness to the job they're seeking, she said.

Hollowell said city applications are all electronic, so changing the questions will be easy. She said her office is currently preparing hiring managers for the change, which is expected to go into effect by April 15.

"We've had discussions with our managers about it, but we wanted to continue with those discussions so that they will know how to respond to applicants, all applicants, without that question being on the application," she said.

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.