On a sunny day in August, Mayor David Condon stood on the banks of the Centennial Trail flanked by James Wilburn, then president of the local NAACP, and Rick Eichstaedt, the executive director of the Center for Justice, to announce a new "pathway for connectivity" in the city.
He wasn't talking about the trail. He was there to announce that the city of Spokane was joining a growing number of cities and counties that have "banned the box" — removing a line from the city's employment application asking about past felony convictions.
Earlier that morning he had sent a letter to the city's Human Resources Department, instructing them to develop policies meant to give qualified applicants "with mistakes in their past" a shot at getting employment with the city government, one of the largest employers in Spokane.
"Those who are being released have this blockage in the way, to keep them from getting back in the community and be productive," said Wilburn, who called it a major step and hoped that private businesses would follow suit.
Fast-forward to this month, and the box on city employment applications (for most positions) is gone. But a month into the policy being on the books, there's been no similar publicity announcing that qualified felons now have more equal footing when being considered for city jobs. That's a big problem, say local advocates.
"I don't think people know that the city is doing this," says Julie Schaffer, an attorney with the Center For Justice, of Spokane's new hiring policy. "I think there is a lot of benefit to publicizing it and starting the community conversation about that, because the city should be proud of it and we haven't seen that."
About 100 cities and counties and 15 states have instituted "Ban the Box" or "Fair Chance Hiring" policies aimed at giving the country's 70 million felons a second chance at participating in the economy. Those familiar with the implementations of these policies say that putting them in place isn't enough, and for them to truly succeed there needs to be an accompanying community outreach component, meant to spark a broader conversation about individuals long stigmatized for having a criminal record.
The issue has caught the attention of Spokane City Council, which hasn't always been in sync with the mayor on the issue, and will soon be asking the city to do more.
Councilman Jon Snyder says that last year, he and others had spoken to the mayor about a "ban the box" policy, and when the mayor held the press conference announcing he was on board, Snyder was taken by surprise. Now that the policy has been quietly put in place, he's wondering where the publicity is.
Snyder has drafted a resolution, set for a vote next Monday, that "strongly requests" the city conduct an education campaign on the policy, with the city's Human Rights Commission taking the lead. The resolution also asks for data tracking to see how well the policy is working.
Schaffer says that the community outreach component is vital because "ban the box" policies are more complex than just removing one line from employment applications, and potential applicants should know what to expect. The box still remains for any position that requires a law enforcement commission, and a criminal conviction is a deal-breaker for many positions. For example, state and federal law prohibits individuals convicted of certain crimes from working in childcare or with other vulnerable individuals.
The city's policies, Schaffer says, are intended to delay any background checks in the hiring process, so that applicants with criminal records have an opportunity to highlight their work and education history first. Any criminal history, she says, should be revealed at the end of the process so the hiring manager has a complete picture of the applicant.
Schaffer also says that the policy only refers to felony convictions from the past 10 years, and it's not clear if misdemeanors or arrest records are covered by the policy. She also adds that the policy should clearly state what positions don't require a background check.
"You know, we haven't gotten to the marketing side," says Condon spokesman Brian Coddington. "We wanted to make sure that the policy was in place first before we got to the marketing of it," which he says will include publicizing the new policy at job fairs and on social media, all of which, he says, will happen within weeks.
Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, says that at the very least, a city should have a "frequently asked questions" or FAQ section about the policy on its website, or video explaining what applicants can expect. More broadly, she says, cities that adopt these policies should be part of a broader culture shift about how society views individuals with a criminal conviction.
"When you get down to it, the policy is about humanizing people with records," she says.
Some supporters of banning the box want to take it further and require private employers within city limits to do the same, already the case in 25 U.S. cities.
"If it works for Spokane, it can work for all employers," says Snyder. But first, he says, the city needs numbers.
Cedric Bradley, chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice committee for the Spokane NAACP, says that people with records looking for jobs need to be retrained to tell their story to an employer, and to realize that the whole world isn't against them. But he says that's not the hardest part.
"The hardest part of getting it done is to get the political people to move forward with it," he says. "A few people may be afraid of the political backlash because people may not be interested or understand it." ♦