Boxed in: ‘Ban-the-box’ ordinance could check off a roadblock to hiring for convicted felons

A new city ordinance aims to make it easier for convicted felons to get jobs—but critics say it lacks bite

In 2012, a Sacramento State graduate named Pyerse Dandridge gambled on an investment and lost: He purchased five houses. The properties, however, were attached to faulty subprime loans, and Dandridge was technically engaged in what’s considered a bank fraud scheme. He was arrested by the FBI and eventually served a 12-month term in federal prison. He subsequently spent three months in an Oakland halfway house before, finally, he was free again.

Except that Dandridge’s punishment never really ended. Because of his criminal record, he hasn’t been able to find work other than as a laborer at the few restaurants that concede to overlook his past.

“My sentence is behind me, and I’m ready to move on, but it never really ends—it’s like herpes,” said Dandridge, 37, who now spends time volunteering with the organization Sacramento Area Congregations Together, where he helps the formerly incarcerated.

That would change under proposed new city legislation. Last month the Sacramento City Council’s Law and Legislation Committee unanimously approved to recommend a “ban the box” ordinance that would eliminate a requirement that job applicants immediately inform would-be employers of a criminal record. Some critics, however, say the ban would lack teeth.

It would follow a 2013 state bill that banned the requirement on local and regional government job applications. In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order banning it on most state job applications.

But, while many consider it a step in the right direction, some social justice advocates and former inmates, including Dandridge, say it doesn’t go far enough.

The ordinance wouldn’t prohibit employers from asking felony-related questions during the hiring process; nor does it stop them from pursuing other measures to dig into applicants’ pasts.

“[Employers] still run background checks,” Dandridge said, adding that while it is easy in some cases to move through the initial phases of a job interview, when employers learn of one’s felony past, they’re likely to shut the door. For this reason, Dandridge says he has essentially given up seeking “a professional job” and is instead focusing on public speaking appearances about his experience.

Toni White, a Sacramento criminal defense attorney, calls the measure a good start, however. The criminal record box on employment applications generates discrimination against an entire class of people while rarely producing any helpful information about a job applicant for the employer, she said. By casting job applicants in a negative light, the box results in reduced employment opportunities for people who may need work the most, White says, and perpetuates the conditions that generate crime in the first place.

“One of the strongest predictors for someone committing a crime is unemployment,” she said. “That means one of the best ways to get people out of the situation they’re in is to employ them.”

White and her defense attorney partner Christine Morse run Ascend, an education and rehabilitation program for adults trying to leave behind criminal pasts. The idea is to help people escape the cycle of crime and poverty—an objective White says the American justice system fails to meet. She believes the criminal record box on job applications grossly simplifies the complex nature and patterns of poverty, crime and the justice system. By checking the box, a person brands oneself a felon.

“But actually they’re a human being with a felony conviction,” White said. “These are just people who have made mistakes.”

In 2014, the state’s labor code was amended to prohibit public agencies from asking job hunters on application forms if they have been arrested or convicted of a crime before a job interview is conducted. The ordinance recommended by the committee would prohibit entities bidding for city contracts of $100,000 or more from asking job applicants if they have a criminal record. It hasn’t yet been scheduled for a council vote.

A study conducted in the past year by Stanford University also lends legitimacy to the ban-the-box campaign. The researchers looked at the circumstances of employees terminated from their jobs and found that those with a criminal record were not more likely to be fired for poor work performance than those with clean records.

According to the Stanford study, 70 million Americans—about one third of the country’s adults—have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

And that means severe and unnecessary discrimination, White said.

“For someone who has to check that box every time they apply for a job, it means the punishment for the crime they committed never ends,” she said. “It makes every sentence a life sentence.”