The Buffalo Common Council recently proposed legislation that would eliminate the conviction question on employment applications for the City of Buffalo, businesses that contract with the city, and private employers located within the city boundaries.
Thirty-three cities, including New York City, Philadelphia and Boston, have passed various ordinances that have eliminated the conviction question. Many cities much larger than Buffalo, with much stronger economies, have passed ordinances because they recognize that residents need to work, regardless if they have a previous conviction. Incarceration costs continue to rise and nudge toward educational costs, which is a public administration nightmare and an enormous social problem.
The legislation is written responsibly and is perhaps the most comprehensive ordinance proposed in the United States. This legislation simply removes the conviction question from an employment application. Employers will have every opportunity to screen the individual during an interview, run complete background checks and hire who they want. This legislation does not supersede state employment laws in relation to certain industries, such as public safety and education, and it goes even further by exempting all employment related to youth and seniors.
The employment process is not being turned upside down. This is not a free pass for anyone, and the business community is not being asked to do anything that other businesses in our community are not already doing. This change is simply to give those in our community who have made a mistake and are capable of obtaining and maintaining a job a fair opportunity when applying for a position that they are qualified to do. This will allow those who have convictions to have a foot in the door and to be measured on their experience and skills, in addition to an opportunity to explain and take ownership of both their mistake and rehabilitation efforts.
The facts locally are simple and telling. The City of Buffalo has more than 1,300 individuals on parole, it has a 63 percent unemployment rate among this population and only 6.6 percent are working full-time jobs above minimum wage. A full 89 percent of those unemployed will recommit a crime within three years of their release, and Buffalo is among the highest recidivism rates in New York.
Crime transcends geographic, economic and cultural boundaries. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics and laborers are released from prison every day and all should be afforded the opportunity to find employment.
We must embrace progressive policies to ensure that governmental costs are controlled and that we advance socially. What is the alternative?
Jeffrey M. Conrad is Erie County director for the Center for Employment Opportunities.