A "Ban the Box" rally in Washington, D.C. Will Tompkins pass the controversial measure? Photo courtesy of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

Ithaca, N.Y. – Several members of the Tompkins County Legislature say they support a possible law that would require certain employers in the county to delay asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until the end of the hiring process.

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Keri Blakinger, a Cornell graduate and journalist who was arrested as a student for possessing over $50,000 in heroin, gave a presentation to the Public Safety Committee of the county legislature on the nationwide “ban the box” movement.

“We’re aware of [Blakinger’s] story as somebody who put her life back together and has become quite accomplished at what she does,” said Legislator Carol Chock, who is a member of the Public Safety Committee.

Chock said that she would support what civil rights and labor action groups call a “ban the box” ordinance — which, effectively, would make it easier for those with a criminal history to be employed because questions regarding criminal history would be delayed until a tentative job offer is announced, rather than at the very beginning of the hiring process.

Jim Dennis, vice chairman of both the Public Safety Committee and the entire Tompkins County Legislature, volunteered to be a “point person” on the subject, and is researching the possibility further by consulting with experts.

If the measure makes its way to the full legislature for a vote, Dennis said, “I think almost everyone would support it.”

“I recognize that there are people who are felons – they’ve made a mistake and they’ve paid their dues, but they’re probably getting eliminated for consideration from really good jobs they’d be qualified for,” Dennis added.

A “Ban the Box” rally in Washington, D.C. Will Tompkins pass the controversial measure? Photo courtesy of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
A “Ban the Box” rally in Washington, D.C. Will Tompkins pass the controversial measure? Photo courtesy of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

Dennis supports the idea being implemented for public employees of the county, but said that he is unsure whether it would be a good idea to make it a blanket policy for all businesses.

“I don’t know if I can say ‘Oh, Tompkins County says everyone has to do this,” Dennis said. “Private enterprise has their own roles.”

Dennis is expected to report back to the Public Safety Committee on his findings at its next meeting.

Over 100 cities and counties nationwide have adopted “ban the box” measures, so employers “consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a conviction record,” according to the National Employment Law Project.

The City of Syracuse’s Common Council in December 2014 passed a “ban the box” ordinance 8-1 that applies to public employees and businesses that contract with the city, according to Syracuse.com. The ordinance automatically went into effect in March 2015.

Chairman of the Public Safety Committee Nate Shinagawa said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he, too, would support an ordinance that bans the box, but said that Tompkins County would have to “walk the walk” themselves before the ordinance could be expanded to include contractors with the county or private businesses.

“I think that, with anything we do in government,” Shinagawa said, “ideas always work well in concept, but we have to try them and see how they work first.”

“I am in favor of expanding it to those that are contracted with the county and I’m open to seeing how we can expand it county-wide,” he added, but said he would favor testing out the ordinance at first for public county employees.

Shinagawa noted that he is also a vice-chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which he said is more likely to fully take on the matter, rather than the Public Safety Committee. He said that he is confident that the full legislature would support an ordinance to ban the box.

“I think that if we showed them that this is not going to affect public safety, that it’s not going to affect special populations that we’re concerned about … I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

In New York State, a felon cannot be denied a job based on their criminal history unless the crime-in-question could impact the job that is being applied for.

For example, Will Burbank, a member of the legislature who sits on the Public Safety Committee said: “If someone was convicted of a financial crime, you probably wouldn’t want to put them into a financial position. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Ultimately, though, Burbank said in a phone interview that “the central idea of being open to people that have had legal problems in the past and have a felony and turn their life around … not discounting them from the get-go is very worthwhile.”

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Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.