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Pittsburgh City Council passes ‘ban the box’ bill

More than an estimated 150,000 residents of the city of Pittsburgh have some kind of criminal background. Now, after a two-year battle, led by Dean Williams, director of the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project, these individuals will not be unfairly denied employment for disclosing their background when filling out a job application.

BAN THE BOX—Dean Williams celebrates with supporters. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Today we are here to celebrate our city for taking a step to restore a large portion of our population,” Williams said at a press conference on Dec. 18.

The “ban the box” legislation, which is comprised of two separate bills and passed in City Council on Dec. 17, will prohibit employers from asking criminal background questions on job applications. The first bill passed is for city hiring and the second is for hiring by vendors and contractors who do business with the city.

“The ultimate goal has been accomplished and hopefully we can move it forward to the county,” Williams said. “This is something every lawmaker should be looking at.”

In addition to his continued work with formerly convicted citizens, Williams plans to take his campaign to Allegheny County Council. In a meeting between County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Black Political Empowerment Project Chairman Tim Stevens, Fitzgerald expressed interest in considering “ban the box” legislation.

“The issue of violence is rooted in a lack of employment opportunity, so this bill will hopefully get rid of that barrier,” Stevens said.

The “ban the box” campaign started gaining momentum in Pittsburgh in June of 2011 when Williams met with Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of X-offenders for Community Empowerment in Philadelphia. The meeting, which was held at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, demonstrated how the success of “ban the box” legislation passed in Philadelphia could be brought to Pittsburgh.

“It seems like it was just yesterday that we met at the Urban League to start this process,” said Doug Silva, program manager of the Urban League. “This will make it easier for the people we serve everyday to gain access to employment opportunities.”

In the time since District 9 Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess first sponsored the legislation in April 2011, it collected dust in the city solicitor’s office for nearly a year and a half while the city’s lawyers determined whether it was legal to enforce. However, all along, most of City Council had expressed support for the legislation.

“We as a council are pleased to pass this bill. Everyone deserves a second chance. They’ve already paid their debt to society,” said City Council President Darlene Harris. “We thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

The legislation also quickly gained support among community groups, some who are actively involved in working with citizens in the criminal justice system, and others who see the legislation as tool for improving conditions in the African-American community.

“This legislation is just the first step to helping those who have already paid their debt to society,” said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization serving children with incarcerated parents.

“The biggest issue we have in our society is a lack of opportunity,” said Mark Lewis, president and CEO of the POISE Foundation, which focuses on building sustainable Black communities and strengthening Black families. “So this issue of banning the box is creating an opportunity for people who might have done things in the past and giving them an opportunity to support their families.”


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