San Francisco Law Would Shield Applicants' Criminal History

With recidivism rates in California among the highest in the nation, San Francisco officials hope a law aimed at curtailing housing and workplace bias will give ex-offenders a better chance at success.

Last Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance barring most housing providers and employers from asking applicants to disclose their criminal history until after engaging in a live interview. The board will vote on the “ban the box” legislation a second time this Tuesday before sending it to the mayor.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who co-authored the legislation with Supervisor Malia Cohen, said the ordinance "covers affordable housing, below-market-rate units, contractors with the city and private employers with 20 or more employees." Positions in childcare, law enforcement and others in which criminal history is especially relevant will be exempt.

"This was born out of a desire to provide real employment and housing opportunities for people with a conviction history," Cohen told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Access to housing and employment is key to preventing recidivism and increasing public safety in our community."

Kim hopes the legislation will build upon Clean Slate, a program run out of the public defender’s office. She says Clean Slate has only helped one-third of its participants secure employment, according to SF Bay -- with most of those participants earning less than $3,000 a year.

“How is it possible to find opportunity and start a new life if that is the opportunity that you get after spending time in prison?” she asked, according to the San Francisco Public Press.

Cohen believes the legislation will keep housing providers and employers from unknowingly holding a prejudice against ex-offenders who have taken the necessary rehabilitating steps to reintegrate into society, SF Bay reports.

“I believe that it will begin to help eliminate the conscious -- and more importantly the unconscious -- bias that exists when hiring and housing individuals with a conviction history,” she said. “This legislation is not designed to give individuals a preference. Rather it’s to ensure they are judged on their qualifications, not their previous actions.”

While California banned the question from public employment applications last year -- and mass retailers such as Target have voluntarily adopted the custom nationwide -- implementing the employer policy in tandem with the housing policy could round out the support ex-offenders need.

“It is in everyone’s interest in this city to make sure that when people come back to society… that we are absorbing them effectively,” Supervisor Scott Wiener said. “We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot if we have people who come out of the criminal justice system and can’t get a job or can’t get a place to live. It has a cascading negative effect on the community.”

The ordinance joins other city efforts to better prepare ex-offenders for success. Last month, San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi introduced legislation that would enroll the city’s inmates in Obamacare.

“If a city can stand for redemption,” Supervisor David Campos said while announcing his support, “that’s San Francisco.”



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