Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade removes criminal history question from county job applications

Joining a national movement known as “Ban the Box,” Miami-Dade County commissioners on Tuesday approved a change to the way county government hires employees.

No longer will county job applications include a section — the box — that asks job-seekers to disclose any prior criminal convictions. Criminal background checks will still be part of the applicant screening process, but only when someone becomes a finalist for the job.

The goal: giving those who made a mistake, perhaps when they were young, a “full and fair” chance to impress with their résumé and job-interview skills. By the time their criminal record enters into the discussion, they may have impressed hiring managers enough to still land the position.

“We have a moral responsibility to give them a chance, at least a second chance, to compete for a job,” County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime told his colleagues. “We want people to have a chance to make an honest living.”

Miami-Dade’s action follows similar laws passed by 19 states and more than 100 cities and counties nationwide. The state of Florida is not part of that list, but several large Florida cities are, including Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.

Miami-Dade’s law was tweaked at the last minute to garner more political support: It doesn’t apply to police, fire-rescue, or corrections departments, which will continue asking up front about criminal history.

Fair is one thing, until they touch or they do something to one of your family members.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa

Even with that last-minute amendment, the measure didn’t have unanimous support among Miami-Dade commissioners. It passed Tuesday by a 8-4 vote. Commissioner Rebeca Sosa was one of those opposed to the change.

“Fair is one thing, until they touch or they do something to one of your family members,” Sosa said. Sosa also argued that the county was misleading job applicants by making them think that their criminal history would never be discussed. Although the question is now removed from the initial job application, there is still a background check for job finalists — and they could be disqualified at that stage.

“At some point, we’re going to find out,” Sosa said.

But Commissioner Barbara Jordan, one of those supporting the new application form, said leaving off criminal history questions at the start will encourage more people to at least give it their best shot. Jordan cited a hypothetical example of someone convicted of a marijuana possession charge as a teenager. Sure, Jordan said, that criminal case will still come up if he or she becomes a finalist, but by that point, the applicant is thinking, “maybe I impressed them so much . . . they’ll still hire me.”

The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s office attended Tuesday’s commission meeting to express support for the new job application. Richard De Maria, chief assistant public defender, told commissioners that for minor offenses that don’t carry the risk of jail time, prosecutors can request that the judge waive the defendent’s right to a public defender. This happens regularly, De Maria said, and each year thousands of Miami-Dade residents are left to defend themselves without an attorney.

Many end up accepting a plea deal from prosecutors, De Maria said.

“And of course when someone takes a plea without an attorney, it’s often the case that they really don’t undersand what has just happened,” De Maria said.

Later on, he said, “they’re seeking employment, and they end up not getting a job.”