RICHMOND -- Private businesses that contract for work with the city may be prohibited from asking questions about prior criminal convictions on employment applications, the City Council decided Tuesday.

The Council voted 5-1-1 to have the city attorney draft a new ordinance that would expand a 2011 law prohibiting the city from asking questions about criminal history when hiring public employees.

"It's the right thing to do," said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who proposed the motion. "We are simply removing (the question) from the initial stage of the game."

A staff report outlining the proposed law says, "The intent of this resolution is to support the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated people into the community by removing barriers to employment after their release from prison."

Beckles said expanding the law is key in reducing the city's high unemployment and reducing recidivism. Dozens of parolees return to the city from incarceration stints each month.

Nearly 80 percent of local parolees are unemployed, according to a city staff report.

The new law would extend the current law to all private vendors and contractors who have city contracts.

According to the National Employment Law Project, Richmond is one of 43 cities nationwide and eight cities and counties in California that have adopted some form of so-called "ban the box" legislation. Compton, in Southern California, is listed in the November 2012 NELP report as another city that has extended the law to private businesses that contract with the city.


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More than 10 residents spoke in favor of expanding the law.

Police Chief Chris Magnus said he supports expanding the law because it may improve public safety and reduce recidivism.

But there were critics of the resolution. At least two residents said the law is an overreach that would impose new regulations on local firms and noted that businesses would still be able to discover applicants' criminal history with background checks.

Proponents said it is crucial to remove the question in order to get applicants past initial hurdles to employment.

Councilman Corky Booze abstained. Councilman Nat Bates voted against the ordinance, saying it would do little to improve employment for formerly incarcerated people because they would still be passed over due to background checks conducted by most businesses.

"Life is not fair, it has never been fair, and it never will be fair," Bates said. "The tag goes with them the rest of their life."

The ordinance is slated to come back to council for approval next month.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.