Dallas County Bans the Box, Delays Criminal Records Check for Applicants

People who want to work for Dallas County and have a criminal record will now have a much easier time getting a foot in the door. The county will no longer ask questions about applicants' criminal backgrounds on initial job applications. The move comes after a bill by Dallas state Representative Eric Johnson that would've "banned the box" statewide died during the 2015 Texas Legislative session.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins lobbied for Johnson's bill in the spring and emphasized Tuesday, as he did then, that taking the questions off the initial application does not mean that county applicants will not go through background checks. Staff will work with county departments to balance the nature and severity of job-seekers' crimes with their potential job duties. Potential law enforcement officers and people who want to work with kids or the elderly will still go through rigorous background checks. Applicants to less sensitive positions might not. The county also plans to work with support organizations to encourage ex-offenders to apply for jobs.

"Here's what we've learned: We've learned that when you have a box on the front of an employment application to ask if you've ever been convicted of a felony, it has a quelling effect that leads to less people applying for jobs and a less robust pool of job applicants," Jenkins said. "We've learned that mid-level managers will look for certain disqualifiers, maybe sometimes it will be an educational level, many times it will be if someone checks a box on criminal history, that they'll just knock out some of the résumés to make their job of culling down applications for in-person interviews easier."

Urmit Graham, the interim director of Dallas County's human resources department, guessed that 6 or 7 percent of the current county workforce has felony convictions.

"The key is to get those people through the door. Right now, through self-selection, [ex-offenders] automatically say, 'Since they ask these questions, I'm not even going to apply,'" Graham said. "We get over 100,000 applications a year. Managers, trying to find the top 20, may see an [application with the box checked] and decided that's not something they want to worry about. Hopefully having these questions at the back end will delay [cutting qualified applicants]."

The county's move is part of a trend nationwide. Many large corporations, including Target, Wal-Mart and, as of this spring, Koch Industries, have taken criminal background questions off their initial job applications. Earlier this month, President Obama announced an executive action that will dump the boxes on federal job applications as well.

The next step for criminal justice reform advocates is getting the box ban extended statewide. Johnson vowed this summer that he'll bring his bill back during the 2017 legislative session.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young