In a 3-2 vote, Harris County Commissioner’s Court voted to adopt the Fair Chance Policy, also known as “ban the box” for Harris County government job applications. This policy specifically removes the question of criminal history in the initial hiring process so applicants can be considered based solely on their qualifications.
For context, the Fair Chance policy was created to prevent employers from discriminating against potential employees who may have a history in the justice system. And for clarification, according to Harris County officials, applicants will still be required to do a background check, but only after an offer of employment is made.
According to reports, Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. So County Attorney Christian Menefee said this proposal is about removing the stigma associated with a criminal record and hopefully decreasing the recidivism rate in the county.
“We know that 1 and 3 Americans in their lifetime have had some interaction in the criminal justice system and these are folks who are skilled,” Menefee said in a press conference on Tuesday. “There are millions of parents throughout this country who have been caught up in the criminal justice system and who are being either unemployed, underemployed or forced out of the workforce.”
Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo emphasized how adopting the policy also addresses public safety in the county.
“Do we want to be the county that traps people in a cycle of incarceration and conviction once again and joblessness?” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “Or do we want to be the type of county that gives folks a chance to get back on their feet? Do we want to be a county that creates a permanent underclass or do we want to be a county that allows folks to rise and be better than the worst thing they ever did?”
A 2019 report by the Texas Department of Public Safety showed that Harris County has one of the highest recidivism rates in the state. According to reports, 74.59 percent of the people convicted for felony offenses in Harris County had previously been convicted before. While other heavily populated areas like Dallas and Bexar County had a 62-67 percent turnover rate.
So advocates working in the criminal justice arena said policies like “ban the box” are a game-changer for formerly incarcerated Texans.
“It’s extremely important to have this implemented in Harris County considering it’s largely populated with Black and brown people,” Pure Justice Communications Director Sharia Legette said. “And as we know we are primarily the ones who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.”
Pure Justice is a grassroots member-driven organization in Houston, TX that works to reform social and criminal injustices in hopes to create economic opportunities for marginalized communities.
The two Republican commissioners on the court opposed the policy citing concerns over workplace safety, confidence in employers, and lack of transparency. But Legette said this policy is about removing workplace bias.
“It’s not that an individual isn’t being transparent,” she said. “It’s just giving them a chance to present themselves as who they are right now. The person who applied for the job and not the person who may have committed the offense three or five years ago.”
According to reports, over 37 states and 150 counties across the U.S. have already adopted the policy. And in 2015, former President Barack Obama endorsed the policy for federal jobs in his administration.
In terms of Texas, Austin was the first city to adopt the ordinance in 2016. Additionally, state legislators worked on legislation in the 86th legislative session distinguishing private and public employers’ obligation to follow the rule. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been publicly supportive of the policy but hasn’t signed legislation to make the policy state law.
“If we’re sending people back out into society we have to give them the tools to survive otherwise it’s just going to perpetuate the cycle because people are going to do what they have to do to live,” Legette said.