Seattle residents believe in safe communities and giving people a fair shake. We know that when people with criminal records get jobs, it reduces crime. And yet some employers refuse to hire anyone with a criminal history — as a blanket rule, with no exceptions. Contrary to some reports, there is no state law that stops employers from asking applicants about convictions unrelated to the job.
Automatically screening out job applicants because of past mistakes is a bad policy for our community. It is time for that to end.
There’s a better policy that many Seattle employers are already using. These employers screen for job-related factors, interview top candidates and only then check for a criminal record. It’s more fair, because it gives applicants a chance first to be considered on their qualifications for the job. And it’s better for our community because people with records would be more likely to find stable work and less likely to reoffend.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell has proposed an ordinance that, if passed, will protect our community from employers who unreasonably refuse to hire anyone with a criminal record. It would give job applicants the chance to meet with employers before employers can consider their criminal record, prohibit employers from considering an arrest for which there is no conviction and provide clear guidelines to effectively conduct appropriate employment background checks.
This proposal is sound public policy. When a past crime has relevance to how a person might perform a job, employers will continue to have the ability to screen out those candidates. And Harrell’s proposal specifically exempts jobs with especially vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. But when a past arrest or crime has no relationship to a job, the ordinance will protect our citizens from unfair practices. The proposed ordinance also requires people who believe they have unreasonably been screened out of a job opportunity to visit a government agency to try to resolve the dispute.
A person who was once convicted of a crime can make an outstanding employee. People change. Just because someone was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that person is going to commit a crime again. Take Ms. C. She was convicted of drug possession more than 10 years ago. She completed an intensive drug-court program and treatment. She has been sober for a decade. But 10 years after her mistake, every time she fills out a job application she has to check the box that she was convicted of a crime. That alone can prevent her from being considered for a job. Why must we keep punishing her for her past?
Studies show that between four and seven years after a crime, a person with a criminal history is no more likely to commit a crime than someone who’s never been convicted. Employers shouldn’t be allowed to automatically screen out people like Ms. C. Instead, employers should determine whether Ms. C is qualified for the job, and then give her an opportunity to explain her past.
Several major cities, including Philadelphia, and states, including Massachusetts and Hawaii, already prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. The city of Seattle implemented this policy in its hiring practices several years ago. There is no evidence there has been a rise in lawsuits or unsafe working conditions in these places.
This proposal also protects diverse communities from the effects of disproportionate law enforcement. Seattle has worked very hard to improve its criminal justice system. But the unfortunate reality is that people of color are still more likely to be arrested or incarcerated — even though they may not engage in criminal activity at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Until we are able to break that cycle, we need to help members of those communities get back to work.
We applaud Councilmember Harrell’s efforts and hope that the city council, business owners and social justice advocates will continue to work together to create fair and effective policies that keep our communities safe while giving people second chances.