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Buncombe Bans the Box

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Euler further explained removing the box was a best practice of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Removing the box would not drastically change anything the county is doing. As in the seven other North Carolina local governments, 100 local governments nationwide, and twenty-three companies that have already adopted Ban the Box, background checks would still be required for sensitive areas. For example, convicted embezzlers may not be approved for jobs that require handling money, and sex offenders might not qualify for positions dealing with minors or other vulnerable populations.

During public comment, local activist Dee Williams spoke of spearheading the movement under the Buncombe County Reentry Council. She quoted local sage Gene Bell as saying, “I don’t see how people can profess to love God and not know about redemption.” Bell serves, among other capacities, as CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville. Williams said Mission Health and the City of Asheville are two local organizations that have already banned the box.

Koch Industries, Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart were businesses, Mark Siler said, had Banned the Box. Siler quit his mission as a prison chaplain in Marion to help with the local initiative. He argued criminal records affect roughly fifteen percent of the workforce, while other sources say it is as high as 25 percent. Siler said felonies are often committed by persons 18-25 years old, indicating they would likely grow up; and added felons are disproportionately African-American.

Also speaking were Stephen Smith, owner and manager of MS Lean Landscaping. Having served time himself, he started the business specifically to help employ ex-offenders. He argued jobs help prevent criminals from recidivating. Thus, employing persons with criminal records makes communities safer. It also increases the tax base. Brent Bailey, who serves as coordinator for the Buncombe County Reentry Council, asked that the county track success indicators for Banning the Box, and also recommended expanding the program to apply to county contractors.

Following public comment, Commissioner Ellen Frost said she was very thankful for the initiative, brought forth by Commissioner Holly Jones. Frost said 4-5 years ago, she spent 10,000 hours volunteering in a woman’s prison. She described the experience as, “very rewarding, very impactful.” She said, “The different crimes fell away as I got to know the women.” When they got out, all they wanted was to work, to be valuable, to be part of society. Unfortunately, they were discharged to poverty, with low self-esteem, and many were drug-addicted. “Everything was against them.” Frost said they would tell her, “”No matter how or what we do in here, nobody’s going to hire us because we’ve been here.’”

Gantt concurred with all that had been said. Embracing a libertarian stance, he began, “We’ve got to remove barriers. I don’t think any judge who passes a criminal sentence on someone would want to add that you can’t ever get a job here because people are going to look at your record and you’re out. Because if you do, you kind of crush the American Dream, where people can somehow support themselves, support their family, and succeed. And I don’t ever want this board to be on the side of taking away peoples’ opportunities to succeed. This is part of our faith, whatever your religion is. We have to forgive people. You just can’t crush people and keep on beating them up the rest of their lives. We do this too much in other ways.”

Jones spoke about conversations in the community, energy, and awareness. “Leadership matters,” she said. She wanted to send the message that, “We are a community of second chances. We are a community that is embodied by redemption.” Following a brief discussion about whether or not staff should be directed to develop and track metrics, the commissioners voted 4-3, along party lines, to Ban the Box. Not a word was shared by those opposed, Joe Belcher, Miranda DeBruhl, and Mike Fryar.

As it turns out, opposition to Ban the Box runs rampant among businesses throughout the country. The main reason appears to arise from guidance from the EEOC indicating failure to abide by Ban the Box could violate Title VII of the 1946 Civil Rights Act, and thus open employers to lawsuits. Employers must demonstrate a “business necessity” for any practices resulting in a disproportionate adverse consequence for people of any protected class. So, in light of the African-American statistic previously cited, not Banning the Box could cause employers to run afoul. In addition, hiring persons with criminal records could render employers more susceptible to lawsuits for negligent hiring and unsafe workplaces.

Small businesses would be hit hardest. Estimates of the cost of recruiting a new hire run around $1000-$5000. With Ban the Box, headhunters must complete the process rather than being able to dismiss ineligible candidates immediately. In Baltimore, employers caught not Banning the Box are subject to up to $500 in fines and/or, ironically, 90 days in prison for each offense. Baltimore got on the bandwagon early due to extraordinary unemployment rates matched by exceptional percentages of the population with criminal records. Opponents argued unintended consequences would include attracting even more people with criminal records to town while scaring away potential employers. Acknowledging these difficulties, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has suggested incentives for small businesses Banning the Box, like free bonding, indemnity against negligent hiring lawsuits, and even substantial tax credits.

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