Broward County commissioners remain unconvinced that a law is needed to “ban the box,” or remove from county job applications a question about criminal history.
But the proposal moved forward Tuesday anyway. Under county rules, a supermajority would have been needed in order to kill the idea.
Broward’s neighboring counties, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, embraced the national initiative in the recent past, and no longer include the criminal conviction question on county job applications. The campaign, which started in California in 2004 but is gaining steam now, seeks to make it easier for offenders to re-enter society. Some major employers, at least 16 states, and the Obama administration have adopted its box-banning protocol.
But five of the nine Broward commissioners — a majority — expressed concerns or outright opposition to the law. There appeared to be majority support for removing the “have you been convicted” question from job applications, but not necessarily for a law backing it up.
Commissioner Mark Bogen called it “ridiculous,” and said human resources staff should have as much information as possible before selecting job candidates.
“Are we here to protect people’s criminal backgrounds,” he asked, “or are we here to protect the county and its residents?”
Likewise, Commissioner Tim Ryan said he didn’t think asking the question posed an “undue burden” to an applicant, particularly if the information is used fairly in screening would-be employees. County Administrator Bertha Henry said staff who make hiring decisions aren’t told about criminal background until the final pool of candidates is selected, and even then, the nature, date and relevance of the crimes are weighed.
Under the “ban the box” law, a candidate’s criminal history would be checked after a conditional job offer is granted.
Commissioner Stacy Ritter said she supports removal of the question from job applications, but doesn’t think a law is necessary.
Commissioner Barbara Sharief said she was undecided but wondered if removing the question only “postpone[s] the inevitable,” which is discovering that a person is not eligible for a job because of criminal background.
Commissioner Lois Wexler said she supports vetting candidates initially without asking about criminal background, but she is wary of going too far and exposing county residents to dangerous criminals.
The County Commission has been conservative in its approach this year to ex-convicts and criminals, arguing fiercely against their hiring to be drivers for Uber, Lyft or taxis. Criminal background standards for drivers were made tougher, leading some existing drivers to lose their county chauffeur registrations.
Ritter said her colleagues were sending “mixed messages” and she found the seeming turnabout to be “hilarious, in a bad way.”
But Commissioner Dale Holness, who sponsored the item, said this debate is nothing like the Uber controversy, where drivers have the public inside vehicles. He said the law is important so that someone “is not dismissed right up front,” or ruled ineligible for lying about the past.
Mayor Marty Kiar said Broward is a “progressive county” that should adopt a forgiving policy toward people with marks on their record. But only Holness and Kiar were willing to give the measure the motion and second needed to call a vote. Kiar had to pass the gavel to someone else, under meeting rules, in order to second the motion.
Commissioners Chip LaMarca and Beam Furr were absent.
“I look forward to a spirited debate,” Kiar said.