Harris County Introduces New Ban-the-Box Policy

The Commissioners Court in Harris County approved a new policy that directs the Harris county government not to ask about an applicant’s criminal history in the initial stages of the hiring process. This policy is intended to give Harris County residents with a criminal history increased opportunities for employment.

County Attorney Christian Menefee stated, “This policy is about removing the stigma for these folks and giving them a fair opportunity in the employment process.” He also said that the best way to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders is to make sure they obtain employment and stay employed. Menefee also stated that this policy is especially helpful for people of color and minorities since they are disproportionately likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

This initiative would not prevent Harris County hiring managers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal background. They would just need to wait until a conditional offer of employment is made. This policy is intended to keep applicants from being excluded from consideration for a job due to a criminal history.

“Ban-the-box” laws are becoming much more common. They have been passed in many states, cities, and counties across the country. The law was named for the box applicants would be asked to check on an application if they had ever been convicted of a crime.

Studies indicate that a criminal record significantly decreases job callbacks, especially for African American males. Although, research has given mixed results on whether or not “ban-the-box” laws actually increase the employment of people with criminal histories. One study from 2018 found that young low-skilled black males in areas with “ban-the-box laws were less likely to obtain employment. Although, employment for highly educated black females and older, low-skilled black males increased. However, a paper on the effect of “ban-the-box” laws in Seattle showed no measurable difference in the rate of employment for people with a criminal record.

The vote on the new policy was not unanimous. Three of the commissioners voted for the policy, and two commissioners voted against it. One of the commissioners who voted against the policy stated that he believes in hiring people with criminal records, but he also believes that hiring managers are fair and should be allowed to find out right away if an applicant has a criminal record. The other commissioner voting against the policy stated that he believed the process should be transparent and that people should not be tricked into hiring someone they would otherwise not want to hire.

This new Harris County policy only applies to departments that the Commissioners Court oversees. For jobseekers that wish to apply for employment with Harris County, it is important to remember that this policy will not prohibit background checks. It will only prohibit them from being performed before a conditional offer of employment.

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