New Orleans joins effort to give ex-cons better shot at jobs

Civil Service panel OKs Landrieu’s ‘Ban the Box’ request

“We can’t leave anybody behind. The incarceration rate of young black men and boys is unnatural and unacceptable. One of the things that happens is when they leave incarceration they aren’t able to access employment.” Mayor mitch landrieu

New Orleans is getting more than $600,000 in federal aid to bolster local programs for helping ex-prisoners get back on their feet, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Monday, timing the announcement to coincide with approval of a new rule banning questions about prior felony convictions on applications for jobs at City Hall.

At an afternoon news conference, Landrieu framed both the federal grant and the rule change as part of a progressive effort to reduce recidivism and ultimately lower the crime rate by providing convicts with a viable path to good-paying jobs.

“You can always be tough on crime,” the mayor said. “But you have to be smart, too. Mass incarceration is not smart.”

Landrieu is likely to emphasize such themes in his re-election campaign the next six weeks as he tries to fend off challenges from former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris and local NAACP President Danatus King.

As the mayor already hinted at with his first TV ad of the campaign season, which ran Sunday during the Saints game, he’ll be trying to drive home the idea that New Orleans is on a historic upswing — and at the same time combat the idea that some New Orleanians have been left out of the boom.

“We can’t leave anybody behind,” Landrieu said Monday. “The incarceration rate of young black men and boys is unnatural and unacceptable. One of the things that happens is when they leave incarceration they aren’t able to access employment.”

Just a couple of hours before the mayor announced the federal grant, the city’s Civil Service Commission voted at his request to remove a question on city job applications inquiring about past felony convictions.

Part of a national movement called “Ban the Box” — in reference to the box that applicants are often asked to check if they’ve been convicted of a crime — it’s an effort to make sure ex-prisoners don’t feel discouraged from applying for jobs and that hiring managers don’t dismiss their applications out of hand.

It’s a subtle shift in policy, and in part a symbolic one. Anyone up for a city job will still have to go through a background check, and criminal convictions will still figure in many hiring decisions. Certain jobs, including police officer, remain strictly off-limits to ex-felons.

However, those with criminal backgrounds will no longer have to disclose their convictions up front. Seeing a check mark in that box, inmate advocates argue, often biases managers against even considering certain applicants, closing off any possibility that ex-prisoners have of rejoining the mainstream workforce.

Dozens of other cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have made similar changes in their policies.

The Landrieu administration said officials will consider a variety of factors in vetting convicts for city jobs, including the seriousness of their crime, its relevance to the position sought, how long ago the crime took place and how old the applicant was at the time.

City Hall, which has about 4,300 workers, isn’t a big enough employer to solve the problem of recidivism on its own, but city officials said they hope to set an example that private-sector businesses might follow.Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, was asked to speak at Landrieu’s news conference about hiring an ex-inmate recently.

“We have corporate rules and regulations to follow, but this is a situation where we have to take people over policy,” said Smith, though he did not detail any sort of formal program aimed at giving convicts a better shot at jobs.

Landrieu also gave relatively few details about what the mayor’s office referred to in a news release as a “comprehensive workforce re-entry initiative,” funded in part by a 12-month grant from the U.S. Justice Department.

In its written statement, the mayor’s office said the city plans to create a “pipeline connecting the corrections system, job training programs and wraparound services such as life-skills training, mental health and substance abuse programs.”

The initiative would also involve a partnership with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which runs the local jail, as well as the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, to add “training opportunities and wraparound services to their programs.”

But the mayor did not provide specifics about which groups would be providing which services, how much money they would have to do it or how they might continue to operate once the grant runs out.