Detroit may cut felony box on job apps

A woman fills out a job application.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: How many times have you checked the box on this question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Many job applications ask, of course. But advocates for ex-cons say the question handcuffs those who want to stay on the straight and narrow
through legitimate employment.

Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio says Detroit
is the latest city to consider banning the box.


SARAH HULETT: Inside a Detroit office building, half a dozen men sit in a narrow room, listening to Derek Blackmon give advice about finding a job. Blackmon works for a program called Flip the Script with Goodwill Industries. And the guys he's counseling have all been recently released from prison.

DEREK BLACKMON: What else is good or bad about the interview?

PAROLEE: You can tell them you'll be a good, hard worker. You're going to be at work on time.

BLACKMON: My man is in the building! I've been waiting. You can sell yourself!

But many ex-offenders will never get to the interview. That's because checking the felony conviction box on the job application will often send their forms straight to the reject pile. So Detroit could soon remove the question from government job applications, and make city contractors do the same.

City Councilman Ken Cockrel is sponsoring the proposed ordinance. He says some people are worried the policy would be an affirmative action program for criminals. But Cockrel says applicants will still have to undergo background checks for some jobs.

KEN COCKREL: And that's important because obviously you don't want somebody that's got multiple drunk driving convictions getting a job driving a D-DOT bus. But if you're maybe somebody applying to cut grass on city property, you shouldn't necessarily be penalized or asked whether or not you did something 20 years ago.

It's estimated that about 27,000 people in Detroit are on probation or parole. And advocates for ex-cons say shutting them out of the workforce is bad for the city in the long run.

Keith Bennett runs the Flip the Script program.

KEITH BENNETT: You get in where you fit in. And if these people can't fit back into society, they'll get back into the life of crime. And we're going to pay for that.

Detroit is not the first city to consider the change. Boston and Chicago have already dropped the question from job applications. But officials in those cities say it's difficult to tell whether more ex-cons are finding gainful employment. That's because the poor economy means there's not much hiring going on.

In Detroit, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.

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