Box not banned everywhere

New Haven officials have called the passage of “Ban the Box” — a program that prevents businesses from discriminating against felons in hiring — an important step for the improvement of prisoner re-entry in the city. But at least for now, this measure may be more symbolic than tangible in its results.

Because of the specific mandates of New Haven’s “Ban the Box” ordinance, which was passed Feb. 17, effects will most likely only be felt in the long run. While the legislation was meant to end criminal-history discrimination on job applications, most private businesses within New Haven still set their own rules when it comes to hiring ex-convicts, since the ordinance has no bearing on private businesses that do not provide services to the city government. Still, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. maintained in an interview three weeks ago that the ordinance nevertheless will encourage other businesses to rethink their hiring practices.

“This is an important step to take, as we approach other companies in the community, that we demonstrate [that removing the felony box from applications] is something an employer can do without compromising the company’s mission and enterprise,” DeStefano said.

Vendors who currently have contracts with the city — contracts signed before the passage of the ordinance — are not required to change their hiring practices when it comes to employing ex-offenders.

Steve Bravar, a spokesman for United Illuminating Company, an energy provider that serves most of New Haven and provides ele

ctricity to all city government offices downtown, said there is still a “box” on the application that asks whether an applicant has a criminal history. But, he added, the company nevertheless hires ex-offenders to fill a variety of positions. The company must maintain the box, Bravar said, because of “infrastructural security requirements,” though he maintained that UI does not discriminate based on past crime history.

Deborah Marcuse ’97 LAW ’08, a consultant hired by the city, said this situation is allowed because the city’s contract with UI predates the passage of the “Ban the Box” initiative. But if New Haven and UI renegotiate their contract in the coming years, she said, they will have to discuss the existence of UI’s criminal history box.

Battle Creek, Mich., is one of two other cities in the United States to have passed “Ban the Box” legislation that targets applications both for government jobs and for private businesses that contract with the city. Battle Creek Mayor Mark Behnke asserted that the Battle Creek anti-felony box legislation, passed in June 2008, certainly made a difference in “breaking down barriers.”

He admitted, however, that the legislation has not solved all the employment problems faced by his city’s population of released prisoners.

He blamed the economic downturn, during which many jobs have been eliminated, for dampening most of the effects that the “Ban the Box” initiative might have had in other times. Additionally, he said, private businesses throughout the city have not yet adopted a measure similar to the Battle Creek government’s. There are many auto manufacturers and cereal factories in Battle Creek that still discriminate against potential employees based on their past criminal record, Behnke said.

In New Haven as well, private businesses have been slow to change their hiring practices. Though General Manager Michael Dezura, of The Study at Yale on Chapel Street., said the hotel sometimes hires ex-offenders, he maintained that asking about criminal history is an important part of the application process. If an applicant honestly describes his criminal history up front, he said, managers will be able to discuss the applicant’s past openly and will not necessarily hold the offense against him. But if a later criminal background check shows that the applicant lied on his application, Dezura said, the job usually will be out of the question.

Dezura said The Study would not consider changing its job application because there are certain positions for which an ex-convict cannot reasonably be accepted, regardless of what point in time the criminal offense becomes apparent. A person previously convicted of embezzlement, Dezura explained, will never be considered for a position as the hotel’s director of finance, but an applicant who readily admits to having been in a bar fight may still be eligible to work in the restaurant.

“It saves us time, and it saves them time,” Dezura said.

Juan Gonzalez, manager of the Spanish restaurant Ibiza, said the restaurant has never asked for criminal history when interviewing potential applicants.

“Just because a person went to jail doesn’t mean he’s not a good employee,” Gonzalez said. “People make mistakes, and that doesn’t mean they’re not able to correct themselves.”

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