Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Seattle bill would restrict employer use of criminal histories

by September 19th, 2012

A proposed City of Seattle bill being championed by Councilmember Bruce Harrell would restrict the right of Seattle employers to factor in to their hiring decisions a job applicant’s past arrests, convictions or pending criminal criminal charges. Under Council Bill 117583, which is scheduled for discussion today in the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee meeting chaired by Harrell, employers would be required to:

  • wait until after extending a job offer to check an applicant’s criminal history;
  • avoid refusing to hire, or avoid firing an employee because of a past criminal conviction or pending criminal charge – unless there’s a “direct relationship” between the crime and the job’s duties;
  • and assess “direct relationship” on factors including reasonable foreseeability of harm or misconduct, seriousness of past crime(s), length of time elapsed since the crime(s), and the applicant’s conduct and rehabilitation since then.

  • According to a city staff fiscal note which summarizes the bill and answers several questions about its implications, Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights would implement the legislation. This would include public education directed to employers and job applicants, and could also involve investigating and trying to settle complaints brought by job applicants against Seattle employers. The fiscal note says it’s not clear whether the bill would require additional hiring at OCR; that the agency “will need to assess their ability to continue to absorb this body of work with existing staff and resources.”

    There would be exceptions. The requirements would not apply if the applicant was to be working with children or vulnerable populations; or in law enforcement; or for an employer required by federal law to check and consider criminal histories in hiring decisions. Additionally, applicants for positions with access to money, financial data or personal information of others, who have previously been convicted for financial crimes, could be not hired or discharged.

    The bill says the proposed regulations neither require “nor (permit) the blanket exclusion” of employees with past convictions or pending criminal charges.

    The bill was the subject of a meeting Tuesday at the offices of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce – which has reservations about it – between Harrell and representatives of various business constituencies. CB 117583 is getting a frosty review from the Association of Washington Businesses, which participated in the meeting. In a column he wrote about Harrell’s bill last Friday at the organization’s web site, AWB president Don Brunell, stated:

    “…the information about someone’s criminal background should be available from the beginning. On a practical level, employers invest considerable time and money in the interview process, including costly drug testing. Addressing criminal history early in the process makes more sense. In addition, employers and the people working for them must have a trusting relationship. Understanding someone’s background and skills up front is paramount….What happens if a felon hired pursuant to this law commits a crime, either on the job or with information gained through their employment? Will the city of Seattle grant employers immunity from liability?”

    A different concern, according to the bill’s preamble, is that too many individuals with past convictions, are automatically excluded from employment because of that, making rehabilitation and productive employment more difficult and recidivism (a return to crime) more likely. The problem disproportionately affects African-Americans in Washington State, according to the bill, because they are 3.6 percent of the population but nearly 19 percent of the state’s prisoners. Native-Americans are similarly at a disadvantage, the bill states, because they are 1.5 percent of Washington’s population but 4.3 percent of prisoners. Related concerns of Harrell’s are the overall incarceration rate in the U.S., which according to the bill has tripled since 1980; and what the bill describes as the dramatically increasing number of prisoners in Washington State over the last two decades.

    Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show it is not actually the rate of incarceration that has tripled in the U.S. in the last 30 years but rather the broader “percent of adults under correctional supervision” – either in community settings or penal facilities. That aggregate indicator has almost tripled, growing from 1.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1980 to 3.1 percent in 2009. In 2009, 2.28 million adults were incarcerated and 5 million were under community supervision. In Washington state, prisoners under federal or state jurisdiction, whether in our out of penal facilities, have grown from 7,995 in 1990 to 18,233 in 2009. That held steady at 18,235 for 2010 (see page 14 in this U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report); and was at 17,697 on June 30 of this year, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections.

    UPDATE, 9/20/12: Here’s the committee meeting video. Public comments on the bill start after 1:58. The committee hearing starts at 42:03. Harrell said he hopes to advance the bill though committee at an upcoming meeting, after which it would go to the full city council for a vote.

    RELATED: Audit: Low Accountability For Offender Re-entry Programs, Public Data Ferret, December, 2010.

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