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Columbia City Council has given a first approval to a measure formalizing its practice of not asking a prospective employee's criminal history on an initial job application. 

The city also gave an initial vote on an ordinance that would encourage vendors who do business with the city to adopt the same policy in regard to criminal inquiries on applications.

The practice of omitting a criminal history question on an application is commonly known as “banning the box." Numerous counties and municipalities across the country have been choosing to eliminate the question of a person’s criminal history from initial job applications. Richland County Council voted to establish such a policy in early June

The theory is that, if an employer sees on an application that a person has a criminal background, they could develop an opinion about that person before ever taking a closer look into their qualifications and abilities. Banning the box could help in eliminating that initial barrier.

The City of Columbia has been practicing "ban the box" in its own internal hiring practices for about three years, according to Assistant City Manager Missy Gentry. The new proposal would formally make it city law, and takes the extra step of encouraging the entities that do business with the city to follow the same practices.

"If we're going to live within certain values, then we are going to ask the people we do business with to do so, as well," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tells Free Times. "It's a hard move in the right direction. We are facing a reality right now that, across this country, even with record low unemployment, there are still so many of our citizens who are not able to access the job market because of previous mistakes. There are as many people in this country with criminal records as those who have college degrees.

"So, the opportunity to create pathways to full participation in the American economy, we are committed to it."

District 4 Councilman Daniel Rickenmann voted in favor of the city's recent ban the box move, but did so with caution, saying he wants more discussion before a final vote on the item at Council's next meeting. 

"Second chances are great," Rickenmann said. "Everybody deserves it. We've all had them. But the offenders that are out there today are multiple times. Our court systems are releasing people left and right on the majority of the crimes that we are seeing.

"I believe we ought to give the person the opportunity, the benefit of the doubt. My concern is, what's the next step?"

Benjamin stresses that people who work for the city will have a background check before they are hired. 

"We have sensitive positions, parks and rec employees, anyone who interfaces with seniors, first responders and the like," the mayor says. "You couldn't allow someone to go work in the accounting department who has embezzlement issues. So, yes, they will [have a background check]. But after they have had the chance to show that they are qualified and the type of candidate you want for a job."

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