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Job form changed to drop felony question November 8, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Patty Katz seemed like a perfect fit for the job as a drug and alcohol prevention specialist at Clark County, but one question on the application ruined her chances.

Her resume highlighted stints as an employee and a volunteer with drug and alcohol treatment programs. Her background as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict gave her personal insight into her work.

The application seemed little more than a formality. But then she had to answer: Have you been convicted of a felony in the past seven years?

Katz’s substance abuse had been intertwined with a long criminal history that had ended more than six years earlier when she was convicted for possession of cocaine. When she checked the box, the county automatically rejected her application.

“I’m really strong in my recovery,” said Katz, now clean for almost eight years. “But it just made me feel like what’s the use? Why bother?”

It’s an experience that countless people with convictions encounter each year, as otherwise qualified applicants are turned away from jobs because of past wrongdoing.

Katz, however, quickly landed on her feet. She got a job as a program director for the Portland-based nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice, where she has focused, in part, on convincing governments and businesses to drop the conviction question from initial job applications.

This month, the organization scored its first major success when Multnomah County agreed to remove the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” from its standard application.

“The county is in the business of rehabilitating offenders,” said Travis Graves, county human resources director. “We’re not really walking our talk if we have processes that discourage people from even applying for jobs.”

Instead, interviewers will ask applicants later in the hiring process about convictions, giving people a chance to tell their story. Graves said staff members should consider the age when the crime was committed, the time elapsed since the crime, the nature of the crime and positive changes the applicant has made.

The question will remain on applications for jobs that require a clean record, such as probation officers, Graves said.

“We’re not saying conviction history shouldn’t be considered at all,” said David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. “We’re saying it shouldn’t be considered on the initial job application because we don’t want people to be indiscriminately screened out and we don’t want to discourage people who could be the most qualified applicant from applying.”

Some major cities — including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco — have adopted similar laws. But the question remains standard at many businesses and governments. Clackamas County, for example, asks any job applicants who have been convicted of any offense as an adult, other than a minor traffic offense, to fill out a separate criminal conviction disclosure form.

Rogers said the nonprofit will lobby for similar changes to state law and possibly at other government agencies and private businesses.



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