San Antonio joined a growing list of cities to remove questions about previous criminal history from City job applications Wednesday.

Proposed by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), the measure comes on the heels of a broader “ban the box” ordinance adopted in Austin last March, which extends to most private employers with more than 15 employees.

“We have a sizable number of community members that are being stigmatized because they are being asked to put at the front of their application whether they have a criminal history,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report.

The policy – already adopted in 150 cities and counties and 24 states – requires City employers to wait until civilian job applicants have a chance to show their qualifications in an interview before requiring them to identify their criminal histories. Fire and Police Academy applications, however, will be exempt from this change.

Lori Steward, the City’s director of Human Resources, said as of two years ago applicants’ criminal histories have been kept confidential from hiring supervisors, and background checks are only performed after a conditional offer has been made. Banning the box altogether, she said, would avoid discouraging potential candidates from applying for jobs.

Saldaña sees the measure as a first step toward following in the footsteps of nine states and 25 other cities that have extended the ban to the private sector. Citing research by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) Professor Doshie Piper, Saldaña said employers tend to weed out applicants based on their criminal background when it is provided up-front.

“What that does is create a real barrier of entry toward opportunity for a lot of community members who have paid down their debt to society and are simply trying to lift themselves up,” Saldaña said.

Following endorsements by Steward and Piper, the City Governance Committee voted in favor of the administrative decision, with one dissenting vote by Councilman Joe Krier (D9).

“I think from a long-term perspective what we’re trying to do here (in) this city is to create more options for people who have already served their time but also set an example for private employers,” Mayor Ivy Taylor, who endorsed the policy early on, told the Rivard Report.

Krier, however, worried the measure could be a liability for the City, though City Manager Sheryl Sculley reassured him that the background check process would not be affected.

Taylor added that My Brother’s Keeper, a City organization focused on promoting opportunities for young minorities, is working with San Antonio’s chambers of commerce to ban the box in the private sector, too.

Policymakers and activists argue that stigmatization of former convicts in the job application process dampens the economy by excluding large numbers of people from participating and developing themselves professionally. This increases recidivism, and, given that minorities are more likely to be incarcerated, becomes a form of racial discrimination.

Saldaña pointed out that businesses like Starbucks, Facebook, Koch Industries, Target, and Walmart have voluntarily implemented fair-chance hiring practices because “it makes sense.” He also cited research by NELP that estimates between $78-87 billion in national economic losses from a reduced output of goods and services.

“What City Council gave you today was an initial step for an even broader approach to bringing economic relief to a large segment of our community who have no access to employment,” said Steve Huerta, a national organizer with All of Us or None, an organization of convicts fighting for fair-chance policies, “because not everyone is going to work for the City.”

Representatives from the business community were generally open to the idea.

“A successful person, 99.9% of the time, has a job,” San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez told the Rivard Report. “That is what allows them to navigate through our society, that’s what allows them to raise their socioeconomic status. So when you eliminate that out of hand, what do we do then with that population of folks?”

Perez added that mandating anything for the private sector without its input “would be difficult for the business community.”

President and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Ramiro Cavazos said it’s unfair to permanently penalize those who have made mistakes.

“Quite frankly, I like to hire people that have had some failures in their background and have overcome them, because I know that’s someone who’s a great problem solver,” Cavazos told the Rivard Report.

According to a 2012 Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 11.8 million people in Texas – more than 40% of the population – have criminal history records, by far the highest number of any state.

Over the past decade, pressure to remove criminal histories from job applications has increased as the nation’s prison system has expanded, leading President Barack Obama to call on Congress to consider a ban the box bill for federal hiring.

Though the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, its citizens make up nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners – more than any other nation, including China, a non-democratic country with four times our population.

The key catalyst in these explosive prison rates was the War on Drugs, initiated by President Ronald Reagan and expanded by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Since then, U.S. prison populations have grown by about 700%, disproportionately affecting people of color, though whites and minorities commit drug-related crimes at similar rates.

According to a 2011 assessment by the American Civil Liberties Union, among adult males, 0.9% of whites, 2.7% of Hispanics, and 6.7% of blacks were incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that “one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”

In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that these figures compound themselves over time and have led to a de-facto racial caste system on par with Jim Crow regulations. Since minorities are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, they are incommensurably disenfranchised and discriminated against in the hiring process.

“No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities,” she writes. “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the height of apartheid.”

Delaying the identification of one’s criminal background in job applications is intended to ameliorate this discriminatory effect. Recent studies, however, suggest that the ban correlates with an increased tendency toward more overt forms of racial discrimination.

One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that under ban the box policies, the probability of being employed for young, low-skilled men decreased by 3.4% among blacks and 2.3% among Hispanics.

“Removing information about job applicants’ criminal histories could lead employers who don’t want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them,” the study explains. “In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable.”

Another study by Amanda Y. Agan of Princeton University and Sonja B. Starr of the University of Michigan Law School determined that ban the box policies correlated with a 45% increase in discrimination in employer callbacks.

Advocates for ban the box policies argue that the tendency of employers to substitute one unjust practice for another does not justify ignoring either. If fair-chance policies increase more explicit racial discrimination, then anti-discrimination laws should be enforced more rigorously.

“It’s about redemption in the end,” said one organizer, who says his criminal background has haunted him for over a decade. “I mean, all of us want a job and a life. Take it off (my record) and let me – I don’t know if the word is ‘be normal’ – but give me back my life.”

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Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.