Kansas City municipal government doesn’t automatically disqualify ex-felons from employment, and it has actually approved the hiring of 38 prior felons in the past three years.
But criminal justice advocates, pastors and ex-felons themselves urged the City Council on Wednesday to go further and ban questions about criminal histories from the city’s employment application.
The measure passed on a 5-1 vote and goes to the full council for consideration on April 4.
The “ban the box” movement has been gaining momentum nationally, with seven states and more than 40 cities removing such questions from job applications.
“We’re not asking for you to put Charles Manson in shackles in the city manager’s office,” Lora McDonald, executive director of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, told members of the council’s finance and public safety committees. She said the faith-based community and other groups are just asking that applicants get a chance at an interview before they have to disclose their criminal pasts.
The most emotional testimony came from Deborah Neal, a former municipal judge who went to federal prison in 2005 after admitting to a gambling addiction and accepting improper loans from lawyers in violation of state judicial regulations.
Neal apologized to the council, acknowledging that she “fell from grace, making some huge mistakes.” She said that after prison, she applied for a tutoring job and had to check a box admitting her criminal history.
“I could see the rejection. It was visible,” she said.
Neal now has a job as a mentor with the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s Second Chance Program, but other ex felons testified that they have spent years looking for work, to no avail.
Gary O’Bannon, the city’s human resources director, said he supports the “ban the box” proposal but added that the city already considers people who check the box. He said that in the past three years, the city has hired 38 of 42 ex-felons for positions where there was no correlation between the job and their prior offense.
Finance Committee chair Jan Marcason said the city would still do background checks and the measure does not guarantee any ex-offender a job. It simply means they could get a chance at an interview before they have to disclose their past.
Councilman Scott Taylor was the lone dissenter, saying he thinks the current application process works well while giving people with criminal histories fair consideration.
Taylor said many city jobs involve interaction with the public and the city needs as much information as possible to make sure it is hiring the best candidates. He said many people, such as veterans, have played by the rules and they deserve fair consideration for city jobs too.
Sherwood Smith, political director of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said it’s especially important for the city to maintain trust with public safety workers such as firefighters and ambulance crews who go into people’s homes. He urged the city to keep the criminal history boxes on those job applications.
Marcason said the council will take that request into consideration before a final vote.