OPM: Do good. Hire a felon

No rational manager would knowingly hire a convicted embezzler as a controller, accountant or someone who signs checks. Nor would you likely hire a former strong-armed robber as a night guard with a gun.  Or a convicted smuggler or drug trafficker as a border patrol officer. Or a pedophile to a Teach for America posting.

Yet under the so-called “Ban the Box” idea proposed by the Office of Personnel Management, hiring managers wouldn’t know about...

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No rational manager would knowingly hire a convicted embezzler as a controller, accountant or someone who signs checks. Nor would you likely hire a former strong-armed robber as a night guard with a gun.  Or a convicted smuggler or drug trafficker as a border patrol officer. Or a pedophile to a Teach for America posting.

Yet under the so-called “Ban the Box” idea proposed by the Office of Personnel Management, hiring managers wouldn’t know about such things until deep into the job application process. The mechanism OPM has selected:  preventing agencies from having applicants fill out the OF-306 form, the declaration that an applicant qualifies for federal employment by virtue of a clean record.

In its rule-making, OPM says the form itself is likely to “discourage” done-time-and-rehabilitated people from applying for a federal job. OPM is doing its duty in a larger campaign here, in which the Justice Department is emphasizing what it calls “re-entry” of convicts into normal society. Justice uses the rich euphemism to describe people caught up in criminal activity as “justice-involved.” So explosive has been the growth in federal, state and local criminal offenses, it’s a wonder millions more people aren’t “justice-involved.” One statistic has it that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people.

Hiring disqualifications get a little fuzzier in other situations. If a guy stole a car 20 years earlier as a kid, would that disqualify him from working in the motor pool? If someone did time for a marijuana conviction, would that rule him or her out as a nurse?

Looked at in that light, the Ban the Box movement has an element of sense.

Many federal criminal statutes don’t even require criminal intent. People have been convicted of driving a snowmobile and veering onto protected land, or of digging for arrowheads on federal land without a permit, unaware that’s a federal offense. The degree of criminalizing the trivial in the United States is the object of scholarly studies.

Many people who maybe can’t find work because of such convictions should be able to. Ban the Box, though, is more like Band-Aid on the Box. If someone is going to be unqualified for a job for a criminal past, why should hiring entities wait until down the line and waste everybody’s time? OPM wants to change hiring managers’ attitudes about criminals who have paid their debt and went onto the straight-and-narrow. But as a manager, I’d want to know up front. Having a checkered past surface later in the process would feel like subterfuge, with the box banned.

I don’t mind telling you I’ve known a few felons — serious ones, albeit non-violent. One was caught in an inadvertent thing having to do with transporting documents overseas. Another said his geographically distant business partner did him in, but I could never be certain. Still another was an outright drug trafficker whose arrest made headlines. He eventually got out of prison and did it again.

Three different situations. One was fully qualified to return to his former profession. One got work, but in a different, completely unrelated field where the conviction was non-relevant. The third spent most of the last 20 years of his life behind federal bars.

I don’t think banning the box will change anyone’s attitudes about hiring former convicts. Everyone thinks they can read into other people’s souls. Some hardened recidivists will con their own mothers for a sawbuck. Some ex-cons really are over it, and you can trust them completely. It would be terrific if Ban the Box could help make that call, but it can’t.