Asheville bans criminal record questions on job applications

Asheville, N.C. (Chuck Burton)

Asheville, one of the region's biggest employers, is eliminating any question about criminal convictions from most job applications, a change planned for some time in January.

When the change is made, applicants will still go through a criminal background check, just later in the hiring process. The change will help cut unemployment and recidivism among a growing population with criminal records, a number for which no local count exists but that totals 1.6 million in North Carolina. That is according to employment law experts and "ban the box" advocates, a slogan referring to the box job applicants are asked to check for criminal convictions.

Advocates say striking the question will serve as a counterbalance to an overzealous criminal justice system that disproportionately convicted African-American men, often for nonviolent drug offenses. For many that first conviction was followed by economic troubles and more serious crimes, said Keith Young, the only African-American on City Council.

"It becomes a hindrance," said Young, a proponent of reinforcing the city's planned new employment policy with a resolution and possibly a city ordinance.

Twenty-three years ago Robert Robbs, of Asheville, got convicted of selling cocaine. Social scientists would say he fit the demographic of those most likely to go into the drug trade.

Robbs, a then-17-year-old African-American, watched his mother struggle to raise four boys.

"It was fast. Fast money," he said of selling drugs.

Six years and several misdemeanor convictions later, Robbs was facing a second-degree murder charge in the 1999 shooting of 23-year-old Bryant Dobbs. He was the one convicted, he said, because he didn't agree to become a police witness like others.

That meant well over a decade in prison. It was time enough to Robbs to think and realize he needed to make serious changes if he ever wanted a chance when he got out. Though his poverty had made selling drugs tempting, he didn't let himself off the hook, saying some people he grew up with become lawyers and doctors.

"I was a victim of my choices," he said.

While incarcerated, he went to school, racking up degrees and diplomas in computer repair, business management, religious education, culinary arts, masonry, and heating and air conditioning repair.

But when he got out in 2014, no one would hire him. Not even temp agencies.

In the end, he did find work, but had to go 60 miles away to Forest City. In July, he was hired by a maker of industrial air conditioners whose clients include universities, the U.S. Open tennis tournament and NASA. In the fall, he was promoted to a team leader on the assembly floor.

If employers had not immediately disqualified him with a criminal history check, he said "it would have given me a chance to talk to them and for them to get to know me and the person I am now," the now 40-year-old Robbs said. "Yeah, I made a mistake, but look at what I am doing to correct my mistake."

Without work, released prisoners like Robbs become burdens on society, ban the box advocates say, often homeless and committing new crimes.

Nineteen states and 100 cities and counties across the country have adopted some kind of ban the box rule, often called "fair chance legislation."

North Carolina has no state legislation but several local governments do, such as Charlotte, Carrboro and Durham.

In most places those rules apply to the government itself and its hiring practices. But in seven states, private employers too are banned from asking criminal history up-front. Exceptions usually include jobs that deal with public safety or in which a worker has access to a vulnerable population or valuable records, such as law enforcement, child care or finance.

In general, the rules have "a positive impact" on the job application process, said Hayley Wells, an employment law attorney with Ward and Smith in Asheville.

Employers get to evaluate potential workers whose applications would have otherwise been tossed out, Wells said.

On the flip side, some large corporations such as Walmart and Target have voluntarily removed the question. That can be easier than navigating different rules in the many localities the companies have stores, Wells said.

Locally, advocates have been nudging and pushing, said Dee Williams, who has headed an Asheville ban the box organization that works with the government-backed Buncombe Reentry Council.

On advocates' side is a big gun, Mission Hospital, which meets with them to talk about ways to reach out to those with criminal histories, Williams said. Mission, with more than 10,000 workers, is one of the region's biggest employers and has already banned the box from its applications. The hospital does conduct "thorough background checks," said Sheila Meadows, HR vice president.

Buncombe County government, which employs 1,576, does ask the question on job forms, though a statement underneath says, "A conviction does not mean you cannot be hired. The offense and how recently you were convicted will be evaluated in relation to the job for which you are applying." Getting rid of the box may be harder for the county, said HR Director Curt Euler. That is because of the large number of social workers, jail employees and others who work in very sensitive positions, Euler said.

Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that North Carolina cities cannot mandate such changes for private employers but said the city can lead by example.

"Standards must be elevated if our region is to see better opportunity for our region's employees," Manheimer said.

Young sees the issue as one of fairness, pointing out that African-Americans make up a disproportionately large segment of the prison population. Even if the city hasn't discriminated through the criminal history question, the question is discriminatory, he said.

"It hurts a lot of young people. It hurts a lot of people of color."

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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