The City Council voted Tuesday to remove a question about criminal convictions from city employment applications, saying the yes/no “box” was an onerous requirement for ex-convicts.
Question 14, displayed prominently on the first page of all applications for city jobs, asks: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Opponents of the question have long felt that it dissuades potential applicants with a criminal record from applying, making it difficult for them to obtain employment and contributing to the already high recidivism rate in the city.
Leslie Knight, Richmond’s assistant city manager, said the question had a “chilling effect” on potential applicants, disproportionally affecting African Americans and Latinos. According to Knight, removing the question would send a different message. “What we’re really doing is saying, “Everyone is welcome to apply’,” Knight said.
The City Council largely viewed the “ban the box” resolution as a social justice issue.
“We have to correct a justice system that is unfair,” said Councilmember Jeff Ritterman. “This is really trying to correct a societal problem that runs pretty deep.”
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said that a dearth of jobs for ex-convicts helped to perpetuate crime in the city.
“That fact that we have recidivism stems from the fact that opportunities aren’t provided, so we have to remove barriers,” McLaughlin said. “Banning the box is removing a barrier.”
Councilmember Nat Bates abstained from voting and was the lone dissenting voice, saying that those with criminal records should not hide their history. He also took particular issue with a proposed supplemental background questionnaire; in place of Question 14, applicants for city employment would have to answer questions about their criminal background if they were being considered for a position where such a background check was deemed a business necessity or was legally required.
“You’re playing with people’s lives,” Bates said. “You give the person the impression that everything is going to be OK, that I don’t have to respond to my record.”
Looking for clarification, Bates asked, “What jobs don’t require a supplemental background questionnaire?”
“City Council,” responded Ritterman, garnering a chuckle from the audience.
According to Knight, Human Resources would determine what jobs would or would not require it. A position as an engineer or electrician would not, for example, while a Parks and Recreation employee, who might be supervising minors, would.
Despite near unanimous approval of the ban the box measure from the council and the audience, a fracas erupted when Richmond resident and community activist Rev. Kenneth Davis, dressed in combat fatigues, interrupted McLaughlin mid-sentence, saying, “You’re a racist.” McLaughlin asked for quiet, and Davis responded, “I know you ain’t talking about me.” McLaughlin then ordered the police to escort Davis from the council chambers, amidst Davis’ objections.
“You mean you would deny me my civil right, lady?” Davis said. “You mean to tell me you can’t deal with this?”
Shortly after the disruption, a visibly shaken McLaughlin asked Vice Mayor Tom Butt to take over the meeting, saying she had a “short errand to run.”
McLaughlin returned about 15 minutes later, to a closing harangue from Councilmember Corky Booze.
“There’s going to be somebody that comes into these council chambers,” Booze said. “When you dis him, like you just did to Rev. Davis, you better be hiding yourself. Because the people that you’re trying to save are the same people that have no problem going to jail for the rest of their natural lives.”