Op-ed: The Fair Chance in Hiring Ordinance is a win for Baton Rouge. That’s why some oppose it.
According to a rumor going around town lately, if the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council passes the Fair Chance in Hiring ordinance this week, every small business in East Baton Rouge Parish will be forced to hire at least one mass murderer and/or child rapist at $18/hour with full benefits and 6-months paternity leave.
Or at least that’s what would have to be the case to justify the sudden panic and deluge of misinformation on the part of the ordinance’s opponents in recent days ahead of an expected vote on the law.
As the Council prepares to consider the Fair Chance in Hiring ordinance, it felt appropriate to reflect on the fundamental values and aspirations that underpin our community, both its citizenry and local small businesses, both of which I feel moderately qualified to represent. In recognizing the ordinance’s merits and acknowledging its potential to significantly shape the lives – and businesses – of many, council members should focus on the tangible benefits this ordinance can bring to the Baton Rouge, rather than succumb to the treacherous sirens of misinformation.
The ordinance at hand proposes an elegant and prudent expansion of existing policies that currently apply to city government positions (which the state followed suit shortly thereafter), extending their reach to cover contract jobs. In essence, city contractors would follow the same rule as city positions: background checks can only be conducted at the conditional offer point in the hiring process. A display of rationality, in its purest form. In fact, this expansion is more about closing an illogical policy loophole more than it’s about some sweeping change. If the very positions these contractors are working alongside are subject to certain rules and regulations, why then would the contractors avoid such standards simply because the logo on their shirt is different? This expansion simply applies common-sense uniformity to hiring for all individuals doing work on behalf of the Parish.
Yet, amidst the cacophony of dissenting voices, critics put forth the misleading notion that the ordinance either prevents contractors from conducting background checks altogether or obligates them to hire an ex-felon without exception. They have gone out of their way to spook local leaders into believing that this ordinance is the first domino to fall in an inevitable march towards a real-life Purge. But it is here that we must turn to the facts – not nonsense – for they demonstrate the ordinance’s true nature: it merely delays the timing of background checks to grant individuals with criminal records a fair chance to showcase their qualifications. Nothing more, nothing less. If after interviewing an amazing candidate, Company A pulls a background check & discovers that the person stole a phone when they were 18, Company A can still absolutely walk away from said amazing candidate for what they did as a kid without any consequence (notwithstanding any moral implications of the hypothetical).
Some of the opposition has simply been of the usual political polarization variety: if liberals are for it, then conservatives are against it. And I get it, sometimes I like to simplify my life too. I once spent a week not speaking to people wearing yellow shirts. Idiotic? Absolutely, but it was one of the most straightforward weeks of my life. See yellow shirt, avoid yellow shirt. So I get it. But even in an era where partisanship often clouds our better judgment, the Fair Chance ordinance provides us with a unifying force. Its passage holds the potential to invigorate Baton Rouge’s local economy in truly significant ways. A recent report from the Center for American Progress intimates that reducing recidivism rates and increasing employment opportunities for people with criminal records could uplift the national economy by a staggering $65 billion annually. Why not harness such benefits for Baton Rouge?
Maybe it’s the myriad of stereotypes and fears that often beset the public discourse surrounding the hiring of previously incarcerated individuals. Perhaps some may entertain the notion that a former felon is a ticking time bomb of violence or incompetence. Even if that were true – which it’s not – the ordinance that the Council will vote on this week ensures that background checks still transpire, enabling businesses to make informed decisions about their candidates. Herein lies the harmonious balance between equal opportunity and employer discretion. No control is being taken from business owners. If you don’t want to hire an ex-felon, you don’t have to. The only difference under the Fair Chance ordinance is you just have to pretend like you thought about it – so just think about like the ones about race and gender and use that old playbook.
And again, this only applies to city government contractors. And not even all of them! It would exempt contractors with the Police Department, the Constable’s Office working in a law enforcement capacity, the Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services, the Department of Human Development Services, the Department of Juvenile Services, and even the Airport Authority.
But perhaps most ironically, the Fair Chance in Hiring ordinance stands as a testament to a free-market approach to criminal justice reform, defying the creation of new government programs or the building of more prisons. As one of those dreaded progressives, you know I love my welfare, but even I have to admit that no government program is ever going to be nearly as effective at reducing our prison population and our crime rate as, well, a job. When someone has something to lose, they usually act like it. And vice versa. Research reinforces the notion that employment is a crucial element in reducing recidivism, an outcome that benefits public safety and the economy alike. You almost have to wonder about the motives of this ordinance’s opponents when those supporting it have to make an explicit case for reducing crime, reducing unemployment, and bolstering our local economy… But I digress; I’m sure opponents of this ordinance don’t have a political or financial interest in perpetuating poverty or overpopulating our prisons. That would be insane, right?
Weigh the merits of the Fair Chance in Hiring ordinance and confront the reality of its potential impact. In providing individuals with an opportunity for redemption and simultaneously fostering a stronger local economy, the ordinance embodies the very essence of community progress. And to be honest, it’s a small step. It’s not everything advocates wanted. It’s not even close. But it moves the needle in the right, common sense direction for our community. It’s good for businesses, it’s good for public safety, and most importantly, it’s good for Baton Rouge. The Fair Chance in Hiring ordinance presents us with an unique opportunity to make a meaningful and enduring impact.
Let’s not waste it.