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California

L.A. officials may bar employers from asking right away about crimes

As he searches for a new job, South Los Angeles resident Rogelio Martinez dreads the box he is routinely asked to check on application forms: Has he ever been convicted of a crime?

Martinez, 44, says he has kicked his drug habit. He has a mortgage, a family and a closet full of crisp shirts and ties. And he has years of work experience helping attorneys file their court documents.

But that doesn’t matter to a new employer who only sees his criminal record. “I made a mistake when I was young. I’ve changed since then,” said Martinez. He said he has past convictions for selling marijuana and for grand theft, the latter of which he denies committing. “Give me a chance to perform. ”

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To try to help people like Martinez, Los Angeles could soon bar employers from immediately asking whether someone applying for a job has been convicted of a crime, requiring them to strip the question off their application forms.

Under the proposed “ban the box” or “fair chance" policy, employers would not be allowed to ask an applicant about his or her criminal history – or run a background check – until they have been given a conditional offer of employment.

“It’s not about preventing you from doing that background check,” said Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “It’s about giving people a fair shot at proving they’re qualified for the job.”

A City Council committee focused on economic development backed the idea on Tuesday, asking city lawyers to draft a new ordinance that would apply to any employer with at least 10 workers. The proposal now heads to the entire council for its approval.

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“These individuals have paid their dues and done the time,” said Councilman Curren Price, who proposed the idea last year. “It isn’t fair to punish them over again.”

The proposed law has been championed by local nonprofits that assist the formerly incarcerated. They see it as a crucial way to help bring people with criminal records back into the workforce and to reduce the number of former inmates who cycle back into prison.

If an employer has a chance to talk to someone they want to hire before learning about their past, that changes the way they see their criminal record, said Minister Zach Hoover, executive director of L.A. Voice, an interfaith community group that backs the proposal.

“You know me. You’re already excited about me. You have a feeling about what I bring to the team that has nothing to do with that felony,” Hoover said. But if someone has to check a box before an employer gets to know them, “most people tell us they never get to have a conversation.”

Damond Johnson, a former gang member, told city lawmakers that he had filled out 150 applications before finding Homeboy Industries, which helps train and employ people who have been incarcerated. Johnson is now studying oenology at a technical college and worries about getting his next job.

“It’s going to be another 150 applications that I’m prepared to fill out,” Johnson said.

Only about half the people coming out of state prison found a job within a year, according to an Urban Institute study that tracked people released from state prisons in Maryland, Illinois, Ohio and Texas. Nearly a quarter were incarcerated again in that period of time. The National Employment Law Project says that in other parts of the country, “ban the box” policies have boosted hiring of former offenders.

Though there was scant opposition at the Tuesday hearing, the idea has stirred up concerns with some business groups: Stuart Waldman, executive director of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., said putting off questions about convictions could end up raising false hopes and wasting time.

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“Time is money” for small businesses, said Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business. “They need to be able to ask sooner, abort the hiring process if there’s a relevant conviction and then move on to another candidate.”

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L.A. is following in the footsteps of other big cities: New York City, Chicago and Washington already have similar laws. California imposed such rules on state and local government agencies a year ago – including the city of L.A. – but they do not cover private employers.

The California cities of Compton and Richmond have expanded on the state rules to cover city contractors, while San Francisco went a step further and banned the box for all companies with at least 20 employees. The Los Angeles law would extend such rules to city contractors and other private employers across the city.

Under the plan vetted by lawmakers Tuesday, very small businesses – those with nine or fewer employees – would be exempt from the law. So would any jobs involving children, law enforcement, or positions that afford access to medical patients or medication, Price said.

Price and other lawmakers also asked city officials to report back on how the proposed rules could be enforced, including ways to monitor whether employers were complying and possible penalties. The committee will discuss those parts of the plan at a future meeting.

Follow @latimesemily for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall.

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