Prison bars hands (copy)

Madison is among the places seeking to make criminal convictions less of a factor in hiring.

Dan Bannister/iStockphoto.com

Remove that box from applications for city employment that asks job-seekers whether they’ve been convicted of a crime and thereby recruit more racial minorities to well-paying jobs that will help close the city’s stark gaps in income, education and other measures of well-being between whites and nonwhites — and especially between whites and blacks.

It’s a well-meaning idea in well-meaning Madison, although it’s most practical effect is as one more small endorsement of a better approach to ex-cons in a nation that likes to lock people up.

I had naively assumed that the so-called “ban the box” initiative meant Madison would no longer bother with the question of whether applicants had criminal records. It turns out the city won’t be asking, but it will still be finding out.

Past practice was to include the question on city applications, then do criminal background checks on finalists for a job. If a check returned something serious, human resources would tell the candidate thanks, but no thanks, according to city human resources director Brad Wirtz.

Worth noting is that hiring demographics over the past two years don’t make a very strong case for changing this practice.

According to a July 16 city analysis, “the city received applications from African-American candidates in greater proportions than African-Americans are found in the general city population” and greater proportions of them advanced through the hiring process, and, in 2012, were actually hired.

Under the new hiring protocol, the criminal record question won’t appear on applications and the city will do a background check only after a conditional offer has been made to the candidate. If the backgrounder turns up something scary, the city will rescind the conditional offer and tell the candidate specifically why it’s being rescinded.

“It makes it easier for an applicant to appeal a decision not to hire that applicant,” Wirtz said.

Why bother knowing of an applicant’s potential criminal past at all? Well, it’s that old thorn in the side of many a good intention: liability.

Not doing background checks “would create a big liability,” Wirtz said, if an employee with a criminal record the city didn’t try to uncover commits a crime at work.

With the City Council’s decision last week to ban the box — except for police and firefighter applicants — officials are now considering whether to force city vendors and contractors to do the same.

Madison wouldn’t be alone. According to the National Employment Law Project, 11 states have ban the box policies, including three where it applies to private employers. Eighteen others have at least one city or county with a similar ordinance.

NELP also points to research that shows the policies are effective at getting more people with convictions hired and that the benefits of more such hires — less recidivism, for example, and a more productive workforce — are real.

It’s ironic that employers would need government’s push to do what is in their self-interest to do anyway: Hire the most qualified and promising applicants, ex-cons or not.

But then, given America’s history of employment discrimination against minorities, women, gays and other groups, it’s not all that surprising.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.