By Kaitlyn Foti
NORRISTOWN >> Montgomery County has “banned the box.”
That means those with felony convictions will no longer have to check a box on employment applications with the county. Instead, criminal records will only be available to those reviewing applications after a conditional offer of employment is given. Only then will a background check be issued.
If a felony conviction turns up in the background check, the county will take into account the date and nature of the offense, and if it is still a concern, the applicant will have a chance to address it before the county makes a final decision.
“We are out encouraging them to hire returning citizens,” Commissioners’ Chairman Josh Shapiro said of many private-sector employers. “If we are encouraging them to do it, I think we should be willing to do it ourselves.”
There are about 100 cities and counties in the country, including Philadelphia, that have passed similar measures.
“It is one of those rare issues that is getting bipartisan support across the country, because it just simply makes sense,” Commissioner Val Arkoosh said.
The initiative is part of Montgomery County’s attempt to lower barriers for those with criminal records who are re-entering the community after being released from prison.
“One of the things that is the same in every single county jail in Pennsylvania, the one thing that we all have in common, is 100 percent of our inmates are going to be released,” Shapiro said. “This is a population you have to be concerned about.”
The county received a federal grant for an educational employment-aimed program in Montgomery County Correctional Facility implemented in January that has already led to 10 former inmates getting full-time employment after release.
“You are making the community safer, because you’re taking this individual who, without this help, might have a six or seven in 10 chance of recidivism, committing a crime the community and ending up back in prison,” Shapiro said. “Instead, with personal responsibility they are able to make something of their lives, make our community safer, and reduce the burden on the taxpayer.”
The change was lauded by Commissioners Shapiro and Arkoosh, but only received partial support from Republican Commissioner Joe Gale.
“I have a safety concern issue with the employees and the hiring department managers, not knowing who’s coming through the door, not knowing whether they have a criminal history,” Gale said. “Every job I ever applied for I had to check a box whether or not I had a criminal history, and I think for safety measures with our county employees, it’s safer to know who is coming through the door, especially since we’re spending millions of dollars securing One Montgomery Plaza.”
Shapiro emphasized that he did not agree with Gale’s viewpoint.
“I think the claims that he’s making relative to the safety and well-being of our employees is baseless, groundless and has no bearing on reality,” Shapiro said.
“Our employees and anyone working in these buildings are under absolutely no risk from a safety or security standpoint as a result of this policy,” he added. “There is not one shred of evidence or data in the country to suggest that in the workplace anyone is more at risk because of Ban the Box.
The “ban the box” announcement came during the July 21 meeting of the board of commissioners, during a presentation about helping county inmates return to their communities. Shapiro said that the county previously changed the employment process from asking if an applicant had been arrested or convicted of a felony. It was changed to ask only about convictions.
The measure is going into place immediately.
Other measures discussed to reduce recidivism involved helping inmates get health care before they are released and considering ways to work with defendants before a trial to help them address drug or mental health issues, which could help reduce or replace incarceration as a sentence.
“It’s something that our administration has been working on now for many, many years. We commented time and time again that there are many things effecting re-entry and many things making it more difficult for people to re-enter society from prison,” Shapiro said.
Drug court, behavioral health court and veterans’ court were also mentioned as programs that help the county reduce mass incarceration.
The county has seen a slight decrease in recidivism over the past few years.
In 2013, the recidivism rate was 41.6 percent, representing male and female offenders re-incarcerated during that year after being released. According to data from the county, the average rate of recidivism over the past two years has been 39.27 percent.
“There’s something that brings people together around the idea of personal responsibility, about increasing the employment tool, about personal empowerment. These are things that I think are important and transcend party lines,” Shapiro said.