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Paying debt to society, but then what?

My initial instinct might be to not hire them. Yours might be, too.

But public policy should be based on something more rational than knee-jerk reactions.

That's why Buffalo's Common Council should pass the measure giving at least a foot in the door to ex-cons who want to work, pay taxes and turn their lives around.

The measure from Masten Council Member Demone Smith to "ban the box" wouldn't let ex-cons whitewash their past or deceive employers. It would simply mean they'd no longer have to check the box on a job application saying they'd been convicted, a step that too often relegates the application to the circular file, no questions asked.

Instead, if the rest of their application merits an interview, the employer could then ask about criminal history, and the job seeker would at least have the chance to explain what happened and the steps the applicant has taken to change.

"It doesn't give anyone a free pass," Jeffrey Conrad, Erie County director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, told a Council committee this week. "Employers still have the opportunity to ask the question once the application is submitted."

Smith's bill merely eliminates one roadblock among the many that ex-offenders face. Having to check that box could be one reason the unemployment rate among local ex-cons is 63 percent, according to Conrad.

"It's another obstacle that's in the way," said a 42-year-old Buffalo man who got out of prison last year after serving time for assault.

The man is a forklift operator now and doesn't want his name used because he's still on probation at his job, but he doesn't know how many other jobs he might have missed out on by having to list his criminal history on employment applications.

"You just never know, when you don't get callbacks," said the ex-con, who also worries that being black means he has two strikes against him.

"You already have to cross that hurdle," he said. "Then to go in and have relevant skills, and have those skills overshadowed by that question "

Smith's bill -- with exceptions for jobs such as law enforcement or working with kids or the elderly -- would ban city government, its vendors and other employers in Buffalo from asking about criminal history on job applications. It would make Buffalo the 33rd city in the nation to take such a step, according to Conrad.

Other Council members have some reservations, including the effect that such a law might have on businesses. But if employers object that they will have to do extra work on background checks if no longer allowed to exclude someone simply on the basis of the box, it merely underscores the need for the legislation because it means too many companies are using that shortcut now.

"The key is getting in to see the individual" who's doing the hiring, so ex-cons can explain what led them to prison and what they've done to change, said Brother Michael Oberst, director of mission at Peaceprints Prison Ministries.

But this isn't just about ex-cons; it's also about the rest of us who share society with them.

Some 95 percent of the people in prison will get out, Conrad noted.

"At the end of the day, what do we do with people returning from prison?" Smith asked.

Some will object that with local unemployment hovering at 8.5 percent, ex-cons should be at the back of any job line.

But if that's the attitude, what are we saying to ex-cons? Are we saying they don't deserve to work?

And if that's what we're telling them, what alternative activity are we pushing them toward?

email: rwatson@buffnews.com