Over seven years after the City of St. Petersburg instituted a program that eliminated criminal history questions from job applications, city councilmembers will now discuss expanding the practice.
During Thursday’s meeting, Council Chair Gina Driscoll requested a referral to the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee to consider increasing St. Petersburg’s “ban the box” policy to include businesses contracting with the city.
The current program, adopted in August 2015 under former Mayor Rick Kriseman, states that applicants for city employment “will not be asked to disclose criminal history at any point in the process,” except for positions in public safety and those subject to Level II background screenings.
“I would like to see us expand that to include those who do business with the city,” said Driscoll. “So, they too reflect our values.”
The City of Tampa passed the first reading of a similar ordinance during a July 14 council meeting. The practice, known colloquially as ban the box, has gained popularity in recent years as local governments increasingly seek to provide residents previously charged with a crime a better chance of employment.
A June 2021 report by the National Conference of Legislatures (NCL) stated that Washington D.C. saw a 33% increase in new hires with criminal records after the nation’s capital passed its fair chance hiring law. In Durham County, North Carolina, the number of applicants with criminal records recommended for hire tripled. On average, the county ultimately hired nearly 97% of those prospective employees.
Speaking at the public comment portion of Thursday’s city council meeting, Nick Carey, Pinellas County organizer with FAITH in Florida, said his organization was firmly in favor of expanding St. Petersburg’s initiative to include all city contractors.
“As people of faith, we deeply believe in giving people second chances, and third chances – and however many chances they need,” said Carey. “And so, we fully support this expansion of ban the box.”
According to city documents, the measure only applies to the initial application and interview process. Once a hiring manager identifies a “top candidate,” they must advise the finalists that a job offer depends on the successful completion of a criminal background check. The potential employee must also share their credit and driving history, if applicable.
If the background check discovers a criminal history, the hiring department, in conjunction with human resources, will decide if it is relevant to the position and enough to disqualify the candidate.
The NCL report also highlighted potential unintended consequences of ban the box policies. A 2018 study from Texas A&M University and the University of Oregon found that in areas with similar practices, employment levels dropped by 5.1% for Black men ages 25 to 34 and without a college degree and by 2.9% for Hispanic men in the same demographic.
According to the study, researchers believe the decrease in employment among the two groups is “strong evidence” that employers are using statistical discrimination to replace criminal history questions.
“Their theory suggests that employers are associating young, low-skilled Black and Hispanic men with a criminal history due to the groups’ higher incarceration rates,” read the report.
However, the National Employment Law Project states that 37 states and over 150 local governments have adopted ban the box initiatives so that employers consider a candidate’s qualifications before their criminal history.
Speaking from the steps of city hall when Kriseman first announced his intention to adopt a ban the box initiative in October 2014, Kriseman noted that other areas extended the practice to contractors and private employers.
“While we are not taking that step today, I am hoping that our organization – the City of St. Petersburg – will set an example for other employers in our community,” he said.
Nearly eight years later, the city may take that next step.
Councilmembers unanimously approved Driscoll’s motion, with Councilmember Lisset Hanecwicz absent, and will consider expanding the policy during an upcoming committee meeting. A date for the discussion remains unclear.