An effort to give those convicted of a crime a better chance at employment is finding some interest in Spartanburg.
Several City Council members have said they're willing to explore a proposal that would eliminate the criminal background question on city job applications.
Meghan Smith, a Spartanburg resident who has advocated for ex-offender rehabilitation, has met with council members, city staff, pastors and nonprofits about the viability of a local ordinance.
The “ban the box” effort has gained national interest, with some states and jurisdictions passing laws that prohibit employers from asking about criminal backgrounds on a job application.
A ban the box bill was proposed in the S.C. legislature in January, but never made it out of committee. Smith said if the effort can't be accomplished on the state level, starting at the local level may encourage others to follow suit.
“I’ve always had a passion toward justice issues. … The challenges (for ex-offenders) are so huge, it’s daunting,” Smith said. “It’s a small step that can have real practical implications for people’s lives. A person still needs to earn a job on their own merits; (the question) just needs to be removed as an initial barrier.”
Proponents say an applicant's background will still be checked during the hiring process, but ex-offenders will have a better chance of getting a foot in the door and proving themselves during interviews if the criminal background question is eliminated from applications.
Local leaders have said finding work is key to keeping former inmates from re-offending.
South Carolina has a recidivism rate of about 23 percent, meaning nearly a quarter of the people being released from prison will reoffend within three years of their release. But some rehabilitation programs, such as Spartanburg-based Jump Start, have been able to reduce that rate dramatically by establishing relationships with employers who are willing to hire former inmates.
The city’s current job application asks “Have you ever been convicted of a felony in the last seven years?”
Any change would affect only city government job applications, not private sector ones, though the goal would be for private employers to follow the city's example, Smith said.
The idea has not yet been brought before the council in a public meeting.
“It’s an idea worth looking at. We would have to have the staff look into it and look at statistics,” said Councilman Sterling Anderson. “We want to take care of our citizens, and lord knows we have too many people in jail.”
Other council members said they'd be willing to take a closer look at the city's hiring practices.
“I am very much open to council looking into the matter if it’s brought before us if our constituents want it,” said Councilwoman Rosalyn Henderson Myers. “We need to always make sure hiring is a fair process.”
“I don’t see any issue why we shouldn’t explore it,” said Councilwoman Laura Stille. “The statistics I’ve seen about Spartanburg’s incarceration are disturbing. (Ban the box) is one thing we can do to move the needle on that end of the employment scale.”
York County passed a ban the box resolution in January that removed the question from county job applications.
“We want everybody to have a fair shot at (employment),” said York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell. “It kind of allows an application to get looked at without it being automatically kicked out. … For general county jobs, it allows the person to make it to the next step.”
Twenty-eight states have adopted ban the box policies since 2010, according to the National Employment Law Project. Nine states have even removed the conviction history question from private employers’ job applications.
State Sen. Karl Allen of Greenville, who sits on the Senate’s corrections and penology committee, said more people are recognizing some former inmates can still contribute to society.
“We’re just now beginning to involve chambers of commerce and educational tech school communities to help advocate the need to take some of these individuals who have criminal records and evaluate them a step further to see if they are employable,” Allen said. “Many are productive citizens who made a mistake many years ago.”
Jimmy Cheeks, a senior recruiter for the Spartanburg-based job agency Personnel Solutions, said he would support a city ban the box proposal, and hopes more private employers and jurisdictions would do the same.
“We have some companies we staff for where we can’t even send anybody that has a bad check on their background, then we have some clients we deal with where a criminal background is no issue,” Cheeks said. “They have turned out to be some of the best workers and a lot of them have been hired full time.”
“We need to give them a fair chance,” Smith said.