Senator Wolk Explains Opposition to Ban the Box Legislation, AB 1831

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Back in June, Assembly Bill 1831 by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson was killed in the in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. The bill would have prohibited requesting criminal background information on the initial employment application for local employees, with the goal of reducing unnecessary barriers to employment for the one in four adult Californians who have an arrest or conviction record and are struggling to find work.

At the time the Vanguard was unable to get a comment from Senator Lois Wolk, who chairs the committee, as to her opposition to the bill.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Governance and Finance Committee failed to consider the groundbreaking impacts of this legislation. By simply delaying the criminal background check inquiry, applicants could be given the opportunity to demonstrate their job qualifications without the stigma of a past record,” said Assemblymember Dickinson at the time. “Instead, California local governments will be able to continue to unreasonably deny employment at the outset based on past criminal convictions.”

The Vanguard has now received a letter from Senator Wolk explaining her opposition to AB 1831.

She writes that, despite her opposition to AB 1831, “I strongly support the goal that former felons should be given a fair chance at a city or county job, with appropriate restrictions for certain positions.”

She adds, “And in my experience, most local governments already do provide fair opportunities and do hire employees with criminal backgrounds for positions they deem appropriate. And these employees go on to serve admirably.”

However, she believed that AB 1831 created an inflexible solution that required every city and county to eliminate any question related to “criminal history” from the initial application process.

“AB 1831 failed to recognize that all crimes are not the same and all jobs are not the same,” Senator Wolk wrote.  “AB 1831 was another rigid top-down mandate on cities and counties at a time they can ill afford it.”

“AB 1831 deviated from the state’s own employment policy, determined by the Personnel Board, which provides flexibility for departments to determine which positions are subject to a policy of blind consideration of criminal history in the initial application,” wrote Senator Wolk.

She added, “More serious however, the bill language was ambiguous and vague, with the potential to create more problems for local government than it solved. It created more questions than answers.”

Senator Wolk argued that, while the bill excludes criminal history, it does not specify what that means.

She writes, “What does that mean? Felony or misdemeanor convictions? One or more? This year or twenty years ago? Child molestation, drug use, or robbery? Violent or non-violent? Embezzlement? Any crime?”

According to the bill analysis, “An estimated one in four adult Californians has an arrest or conviction record on file with the state, creating major, unnecessary employment barriers. Otherwise-qualified individuals are often discouraged from applying for work in the public and private sectors because of a conviction history inquiry on the application.”

“‘Realignment’ (AB 109) of California’s criminal justice system seeks to produce budgetary savings by reducing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation,” the analysis argues.  “Employment of eligible people with a conviction history is key to the success of realignment at the local level, as studies have shown that stable employment significantly lowers recidivism and promotes public safety.”

One study found that only 8% of those who were employed for a year within three years after release committed another crime, compared to an overall 54% recidivism rate. Not only would this bill increase public safety, but also help fuel a strong economic recovery.

Bill sponsor, Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, told the Vanguard in June that the legislation would prohibit a city or county from asking about criminal history on a job application unless the position itself is in law enforcement or otherwise requires a state background check – such as positions that require working with kids.

However, the legislation would only impact the information on the initial application.  Nothing would prevent the hiring agency from conducting a background check at a later point.

“They could not ask initially, but then if the person got through the initial review of the application, they could subsequently ask about criminal history,” Assemblymember Dickinson said.  “They could always do a background check if they wanted to do that.”

One of the questions that arises is how big an advantage it would be to an applicant to have that aspect of the law changed.

“What seems to happen a lot is that people who apply for jobs don’t even get any consideration if they indicate they’ve got some criminal history, they just automatically get discarded as potential applicants,” the Assemblymember said.  “The advantage here is that at least people would be able to get a foot in the door.  They would be evaluated on their qualifications separate and apart from any criminal history.  That way they have at least a chance to be looked at as someone who would be worthy of the job for which their applying rather than just summarily dismissed as a possibility.”

The bill’s sponsor Roger Dickinson argued, “I think the state has a compelling interest because we are trying through criminal justice realignment to reduce the reliance on incarceration as a method of addressing offenders.”

Realignment hopes to move those convicted of relatively minor crimes back to the counties in hopes that the better availability of services will enable them to break the cycle and reduce the rate at which they re-offend.

“Since we know that the best way to prevent an offender form re-offending is for that person to have a job, this is a step in the direction of trying to give people some assistance in having a real shot at getting work,” he said.

He argued that employment, therefore, increases public safety and reduces recidivism and reduces cost.

Assemblymember Dickinson said, “Hopefully what we’ll be able to do, if we can get this bill signed into law, is set an example that people that have offended nevertheless can be very useful and valuable employees.”

“We will lead the way in encouraging other employers to adopt the same practice,” he added.

Now the legislation will have to wait for another day.

“I plan to reintroduce this bill next year in the hopes that my colleagues will join me in an effort to open doors, not shut them, for qualified job applicants who have turned their lives around,” Assemblymember Dickinson said in a release back in June.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 Comments

  1. medwoman

    David

    I would be interested ( although not enough to research it myself), in a few points about this proposal:
    1) How does California currently compare with other states in terms of recidivism and re entry employment ?
    2) In states with lower recidivism rates, how are the re entry strategies different from those of California ?
    3) In those with significantly higher employment for re entrants, how do their public sector employment strategies different from those in California ?

    In short, has this been shown to be effective anywhere else ?

  2. E Roberts Musser

    Good for Senator Wolk. IMO, all that is going to happen is that local gov’t will be forced to go through a two step process to discover whether someone has a criminal background. Now local gov’ts will have to do criminal background checks on many more applicants to weed out those with criminal records. This will end up costing the local gov’t a lot more money, and is not likely to result in the hiring of more people who have criminal backgrounds. It is a “feel good” bill that will accomplish nothing and result in needless costs.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]That’s I think a billion dollar question. California leads the nation in their recidivism rate, the question is why.[/quote]

    Oregon seems to know, it has one of the lowest recidivism rates. Interestingly enough the answer seems to be 1) only funding programs that are proven to work; 2) teaching critical thinking skills as opposed to drug treatment programs.

    See: [url]http://news.opb.org/article/pew-study-finds-low-recidivism-rate-oregon-prisons/[/url]

  4. medwoman

    Elaine,

    [quote]Oregon seems to know, it has one of the lowest recidivism rates. [/quote]

    Even more impressive to me than the low rate, which one could conceivably attribute to some other population factors, was the drop of 22%. So the question then arises for me, why is California not emulating the process that Oregon has gone through ? Do you know ?

  5. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]So the question then arises for me, why is California not emulating the process that Oregon has gone through ? Do you know ?[/quote]

    I can only guess – a legislature controlled by prison guards that will discourage programs that reduce recidivism that really work? Call me cynical…

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