Columbia mayor supports ‘Ban the Box’ law to omit criminal past from job applications

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin at a past State of the City address.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin at a past State of the City address. online@thestate.com

A person’s criminal history shouldn’t come up in a job application, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin believes.

And that’s why Benjamin says he will support creating a city law that would encourage businesses to eliminate questions about past criminal offenses on job applications.

Data tells us that about the same number of Americans have criminal records as those who have college degrees,” the mayor said in his agenda-setting State of the City speech delivered at the University of South Carolina Law School on Tuesday. “It’s imperative for us to make sure that those who have paid their debt to society have an opportunity to make a life for themselves and a life for their families upon returning.”

Benjamin pressed themes of compassion, empathy, inclusiveness, personal well-being and citywide progress in his 50-minute speech.

A so-called “Ban the Box” ordinance regarding criminal histories on job applications was Benjamin’s most prominent policy proposal in a wide-ranging address that touted everything from the city’s law enforcement to water meter technology to reading and financial literacy programs for children.

The key to making change in the city isn’t “more information, more innovation or more ideology,” Benjamin said. “It’s building a culture of compassion.

In the coming weeks, Benjamin said, City Council members will appoint a 25-member Commission on Compassion and Inclusion. One of the group’s first acts will be working with local Jewish community leaders to organize what Benjamin dubbed a “community leaders Sedar” to gather in the spirit of togetherness.

“Compassionate cities will provide a platform for human potential to flourish,” he said.

In that vein, Benjamin called for businesses and organizations in the city to give the gift of second chances.

His proposal for businesses, specifically city contractors, to strike questions about criminal history from job applications appeals to a nationwide “Ban the Box” movement aimed at anti-discriminatory hiring practices. It’s a practice the city government already follows in its hiring process, Benjamin said.

And it’s a practice that helped Lester Young get his life back after 22 years in a South Carolina prison.

After months of job rejections — not because of his skills, but because of his felony conviction — finally landing a job at Tyson Foods in Columbia allowed Young to earn money to purchase a house within two years of completing his prison sentence and, eventually, start his own business, he said.

Getting a job “adds value to a person. It gives them some type of incentive to say, ‘Hey man, I’ve got this felony conviction, but I’m going to come home ... and I want to make a positive contribution to my community,” said Young, who is the South Carolina organizer for a national organization called Just Leadership USA, which advocates for criminal justice reform across the country.

According to Just Leadership USA, around 150 cities have passed “Ban the Box” ordinances. These laws do not keep businesses from completing criminal background checks before hiring a person, the organization says. Rather, it says, they keep employers from automatically filtering out formerly incarcerated applicants at the beginning stages of the hiring process.

“We just really want people in South Carolina to be open to understanding ... that a particular decision that someone made 20 years ago doesn’t define him or her at this point in time,” Young said.

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.