After one year, fair chance hiring ordinance leaves room for improvement

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Austin’s fair chance hiring ordinance, which prohibits private employers with more than 15 employees from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history before extending an offer, was passed 8-2 by City Council in March 2016 and implemented in April 2017.

In the year since, the ordinance has fallen short of its goals to reduce unemployment and recidivism among Austin residents with criminal histories, according to those on both sides. 

“There’s been some really positive impact, but it’s still far short of its potential at this point,” said District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who proposed the ordinance.

The city’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office is tasked with implementing and enforcing the ordinance.

Due to an unsuccessful attempt in the Texas Legislature to overturn the ordinance, the EE/FHO delayed enforcement action until the special session ended in August. Since then the office has received five complaints, two of which have been administratively closed without penalties, according to a March 14 memo issued by city staff.

EE/FHO also funded an education campaign that included informational events in each council district and the creation of a website and video explaining the ordinance, according to EE/FHO Administrator Gail McCant.

Lewis Conway Jr., criminal justice organizer at the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said that this campaign has been inadequate.

He pointed to the video, which was posted on YouTube in February 2017 and as of April 2 had been viewed 212 times.

Conway, who served eight years in prison and 12 on parole for voluntary manslaughter, campaigned on behalf of the ordinance.

“As a formerly incarcerated person, employment was probably the most important thing in my life, especially when it’s a condition of parole,” he said.

Conway’s case is common in Texas and nationwide.

According to the most recent data available from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, more than 2,000 people who were convicted of crimes in Travis County were released in fiscal year 2016. This equates to more than five per day.

Research shows that post-release employment reduces recidivism, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Indiana Department of Corrections.

However, the National Institute of Justice reports that between 60 and 75 percent of former inmates remain unemployed a year after release.

“This [ordinance]is an opportunity to put people back into the cycle of life,” Conway said.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce opposed the ordinance prior to its passing, a position it still holds.

Unless the city collects data to confirm the ordinance is reducing unemployment among people with criminal histories, it is not worth the burden on businesses to comply, according to the chamber’s Senior Vice President of Advocacy Drew Scheberle.

“We have nothing to look at as far as the impact it has had,” he said.

Despite Casar’s concerns about the city’s efforts to implement the ordinance, he remains hopeful.

“The city of Austin still has not done everything that I think that it should to educate more employers to take enforcement really seriously,” he said. “With a new city manager in place and with the legislative session behind us, I think that this is the year the city should [allow the ordinance]to reach [its]potential.”

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her reporting focuses include employment and economic development. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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