Wake County

Wake to ease county hiring process for ex-cons

Wake County leaders want to make it easier for those with criminal histories to get jobs with the county government.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners on Monday plans to vote on a new ordinance that implements changes to the county’s hiring process in an attempt to provide “fairness” to applicants who have been convicted of a crime, the county announced Friday.

The county government’s job applications currently ask candidates if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, excluding minor traffic violations. The commissioners’ proposal would eliminate that question starting May 1.

The county will continue to conduct background checks on candidates as required by state law as well as for jobs related to public safety, county finances and other “sensitive” positions. But if a candidate has a criminal past, commissioners plan to require decision makers to consider a number of factors – such as the nature of the crime, how long ago it happened, the number of offenses and the candidate’s age at the time of the crime – before accepting or rejecting the candidate.

Limiting opportunities for people with criminal histories is not only unfair but could affect public safety by denying people an opportunity to make a living, said Commissioner Jessica Holmes.

“People with (criminal) records represent a workforce that has skills that can benefit Wake County, and it is our responsibility to hire the strongest candidates for all of our positions,” she said. “As an African-American woman, it is important to acknowledge that minorities are disproportionally impacted by the criminal justice system.”

Wake, in approving the changes, would join a growing number of local governments that have moved to make employment easier for ex-cons as part of a national “Ban the Box” campaign. The “box” refers to a square commonly included on job applications that people are supposed to check if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony.

Though laws prohibit employers from rejecting ex-convicts for some jobs based on their criminal past alone, supporters of the movement say it happens anyway and that the practice makes it more likely that those candidates become stuck in a cycle of poverty.

“A steady job is a key element in helping people convicted of crimes turn their lives around,” Commissioner Matt Calabria said. “Our strategy will help reduce recidivism rates while strengthening families and making our communities safer.”

The Triangle’s biggest cities have hiring practices similar to the one Wake commissioners are considering. Neither Raleigh nor the city of Durham have a box on their job application asking about criminal histories, and they don’t run background checks on the candidate until after they’ve made him or her a conditional offer.

It’s unclear how many of the county’s 4,000 employees have a criminal history. Wake’s Human Resources Department doesn’t track that information, Calabria said.

The Wake County board has made several policy changes in the name of “fairness” since Democrats gained control in 2014. Commissioners last year added employment protections for minority, gay and transgender employees, among others. They also increased Wake’s minimum wage for county employees.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht