The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 20, 2017 1:00 am

Indiana bucking 'ban box' trend

State allows criminal past on job apps

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – One thing is clear in the debate over “banning the box” – businesses don't want to talk about asking for criminal history on job applications.

“Something like that I don't even want to touch,” said one Fort Wayne businessman.

“I'm not up to speed. No comment,” said another.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s board has not voted on the issue “so it wouldn't be appropriate for us to comment.”

The push to remove the question from job applications – thereby giving a better chance at employment for ex-offenders – has grown nationally in recent years.

Hundreds of state and local governments have enacted ban-the-box laws. Generally, the idea is that an initial application won't ask about criminal history – allowing someone to form an impression of the applicant before any possible background checks later in the hiring process.

Most of the ordinances or laws apply to public-sector hiring but some limit the ability of private-sector businesses.

The Fort Wayne City Council hasn't considered the issue, which Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, called a tough balancing act.

“This is not an easy issue to resolve. We want to respect the right of privacy for individuals applying for employment. However, a prospective employer has a right to know who they are hiring and what kind of criminal history the applicant has, particularly if it is a serious felony,” he said. “All of us in society want to give someone a second chance in life for past mistakes.”

Multiple messages left for the Fort Wayne NAACP weren't returned.

The Indiana legislature jumped in the debate this year by passing Senate Bill 312.

It became the first state in the nation to prohibit such ordinances. The ultimate result protects business rights to inquire about convictions or arrests.

A bevy of groups pushed Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto it, including the state chapters of the ACLU and NAACP.

“Conviction and arrest records can keep them from employment even if they have the skills for the job and their history has no bearing on the duties at hand,” said the Indiana Institute for Working Families in a letter to the governor. “In order to balance the negative impact that SB 312 will have on these citizens and their communities, the state must take positive steps to ensure people with records have paths to meaningful employment.”

Holcomb signed the bill into law but also set an example by banning the box on state employment applications.

His order affects employees of Indiana's executive branch. It says initial applications will not ask the question about criminal history. The state will continue to conduct background checks as some statutes specifically bar felons from being hired.

“This executive order will give Hoosiers with criminal records a second chance by helping them overcome the stigma of their past and live productive lives,” Holcomb said. “We are giving those with criminal records more opportunity to seek public service as a state employee.”

Indiana joins half the nation in “banning the box” for state employees.

The city of Fort Wayne still asks if an individual has been convicted of a felony. Mayor Tom Henry declined an interview.

“Mayor Henry's Opportunity Advisory Council's Employment Subcommittee has been and continues to research and discuss the ban the box issue,” city spokesman John Perlich said. “The subcommittee is focused on providing qualified individuals an appropriate opportunity and access to employment with the city of Fort Wayne.”

Allen County also inquires about criminal history, though with a caveat that “the existence of a criminal history will not automatically disqualify you from the job you are applying for.”

County spokesman Mike Green said the box remains for two reasons. The first is to gauge the honesty of an applicant.

He also said some are seeking positions in law enforcement, community corrections and jobs that require handling substantial amounts of money.

“By knowing this information in the early stages of the hiring process, we do not expend unnecessary resources or time on further interviewing or performing a formal background check because the applicant has disclosed something that the state would mandate be a disqualifier,” he said.

For instance, someone convicted of child abuse wouldn't be allowed to work at the Youth Services Center and someone convicted of embezzling would not be considered for any job that requires handling or accounting for money or finances.

Huntington Rep. Dan Leonard sponsored the bill in the Indiana House. He owns a furniture business and said he would not be comfortable sending someone with a criminal history into a customer's home for deliveries.

But there might be a manufacturing job or other employment that a conviction wouldn't have a bearing on.

“This lets the employer still make the call,” Leonard said. “I know there are things that are very sensitive in people's background and some things employers shouldn't ask about, but criminal history isn't one of them.”

Indiana Chamber of Commerce Vice President Mike Ripley said the group pushed for the bill this year to avoid businesses spending resources on an individual who will ultimately be disqualified for the job.

“It should be up to the employer,” he said. “It's their call on an individual basis.”

It became an issue after Indianapolis and Marion County passed its law prohibiting city or county agencies and vendors from inquiring into an applicant's conviction history until after the first interview. If no interview is conducted, the employer is prohibited from making inquiries or gathering any information regarding the applicant's criminal convictions.

That law now has to be amended – possibly to give a contracting preference to vendors who ban the box.

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Top headlines are sent daily