Johnson County joins Linn County in ‘banning the box’

Illustration by Angela Zirbes

Johnson County has officially “banned the box” by eliminating the requirement to disclose past criminal history on an initial county job application.

The unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors (with Janelle Rettig absent) to adopt the measure on Thursday, June 14, happened four weeks after Linn County became the first county in Iowa to ban the box on applications for government jobs that anyone with a criminal conviction is required to check.

Both resolutions encourage the selection of applicants without considering criminal history, whenever possible. Exceptions are made for jobs that require a full background check, such as those working with children or in law enforcement, and the resolutions only apply to county government jobs.

The “Ban the Box” campaign began in Hawaii in the 1990s. Since then,31 states and over 150 cities have implemented the policy.

“These are people who have paid their dues. They’ve done what was expected of them to make restitution. It’s time to let them back in,” said Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese, who introduced the county’s resolution.

For the past four years, the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP has been lobbying for a ban the box law at the Iowa Capitol. In 2016, a bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate but failed to progress further.

“When there are barriers such as a box on the application that asks about whether or not someone has been incarcerated, that is a not-so-subtle signal to individuals…that they may want to reconsider placing an application at that company or government entity,” Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews said.

According to a 2017 study from the University of Georgia, people with felony convictions account for eight percent of the U.S. population. The stigma of criminal records and loss of job skills during incarceration decreased ex-offenders’ employment by up to 1.9 million workers in 2014, the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated.

But America’s mass incarceration problem hasn’t affected all citizens equally. Fifteen percent of black men have served time in prison, compared to three percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the University of Georgia study.

In Iowa, where just 3.5 percent of the overall population is black, 25.3 percent of the prison population is. A 2016 study from The Sentencing Project reported that Iowa’s incarceration rate for its black citizens is the fourth-highest in the country. Black Iowans are 11.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

“The more people are educated about this, the more people will understand how our criminal justice system unfairly impacts certain groups of people over others,” said Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who led the effort to pass that county’s ban.

Ban the Box laws attempt to lessen this racial disparity in hiring practices, but some research has shown they may have the opposite effect. Scholars in a 2016 University of Michigan study sent out 15,000 fictitious job applications to companies in New Jersey and New York City before and after ban the box laws went into effect. After the laws were implemented, the gap between callbacks for black and white applicants grew four times larger. In the absence of criminal background checks, employers fell back on racist stereotypes that associate black people with criminal behavior.

Andrews said that banning the box is still a very new policy and civil rights groups are looking for ways to address its flaws.

“I do believe that, in time, it will get better,” she said. “What it’s showing is that there is some deep-rooted racism that needs to be uncovered to move things forward.”

Walker said he recognizes that discrimination doesn’t end with banning the box.

“Not only are we banning the box, but we are taking that extra step of making sure we’re providing our hiring managers with [implicit bias] training, so they can understand what’s happening in their own brains and make sure they’re not committing the error of assumption,” he said.

Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese was unaware of research that shows ban the box laws increase racial disparities.

“I haven’t seen those studies, but I can’t see that happening in Johnson County. I can’t imagine anyone doing that here, to be honest,” he said.

Some critics claim ban the box laws undermine public safety. The National Retail Federation denounced the movement for potentially endangering customers, employees and company interests.

Friese said when he posted about banning the box on Facebook, some commenters worried about sex offenders being hired to work with children. He said these fears are baseless.

“When you get further down the process, there’s still background checks for various sensitive positions,” Friese said.

But others are still apprehensive about working alongside people with criminal records.

“That’s where the education needs to come in place,” Walker said. “All of our hiring managers undergo continual training. I have faith and confidence that they are going to choose the right people, and will be able to do so from a pool that is more diverse now given the passage of this resolution.”

Cedar Rapids resident Anthony Arrington spoke at the May 16 Linn County Board of Supervisors meeting when the resolution was discussed. Part of his job is to speak with employers, many of which are strapped with HR policies that prevent them from hiring qualified people with criminal records. He said immediate background checks are detrimental to companies and applicants alike.

“Anyone that’s worried about attendance or criminal activity on the job should ask themselves, what is their attendance like? What is their history like?” Arrington said. “When you’re in a position where you have money and power, and you’re able to get away with things, it’s easy to brush someone aside who doesn’t have those resources and just made an honest mistake.”

While neither resolution applies to the private sector, leaders hope they can set an example for inclusive hiring practices. InsideOut Reentry, an organization that serves formerly incarcerated individuals, intends to promote Johnson County businesses that hire ex-offenders. Walker plans to start a public awareness campaign next year on implicit bias and inclusive hiring practices.

“Usually, this conversation centers around racial bias, which is incredibly important, but biases run the gamut,” he said. “If we have the ability as leaders to make decisions that can impact someone’s life, then we ought to be more willing to engage in these tough conversations.

Andrews said the NAACP is “looking to build on this momentum” as the organization works to increase support in the state legislature.

“Employment is an essential for the formerly incarcerated, and it’s essential that they are treated as tax-paying, law-abiding citizens,” she said. “Our hope is that being able to have these counties pass [ban the box] resolutions is a sign that this is what Iowa wants, and that people here really understand what’s at stake.”

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