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September 9, 2013
Editorial Notebook: Where we stand on criminal check boxes

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(Sept. 9 -- By Stuart Leavenworth)

In writing an Aug. 30 editorial, we should have been clearer on where stood on pending legislation to reduce use of criminal background check boxes on job application forms.

Editorial boards shouldn't be blindly consistent. Sometimes, based on new information, they need to reassess past positions. Yet absent those moments, they should stay true to their convictions. As I stated in a column last year, "If you saw us zigzagging down the highway of opinion - saying one thing one day and another the next - we'd have a credibility car wreck."

Two weeks ago, one of our editorials has run us afoul of the consistency cops. I wouldn't call it a car wreck, or even a fender bender. I'd call it a mild case of road rage that we could have avoided.

The incident involved an Aug. 30 editorial, "State should ask about past crimes." It was a response to a Jon Ortiz story revealing how Carey Renee Moore was able to get a job with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, even though she had previously pled guilty to embezzling $320,000 while working at the Department of Child Support Services.

Moore had been able to obtain the job partly because she had changed her name following a divorce. As Ortiz reported, the State Personnel Board had also recently changed its general job application forms, removing questions on whether applicants had ever been convicted of a crime. As we opined, "State hiring managers ought to know if the person they're considering is guilty of a past crime."

Soon after the editorial ran, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson contacted us, complaining about inconsistency. He noted that a year ago, we opined in favor of a bill of his, AB 1831, which would prohibit city and counties from printing criminal history boxes on application forms. His bill would eliminate such check-off boxes, with exemptions for certain jobs, such as those with schools and law enforcement agencies. As we stated on June 27 of last year, "Closing off employment for everyone who has a criminal history would ensure the failure of (public safety) realignment."

So which is it, Sacramento Bee? Position of 2012? Or position of 2013?

The answer is we still support the general intent of Dickinson's bill, a version of which (AB 218) remains alive in this session. But we want state authorities to take steps to make sure that job applicants with serious criminal histories can't easily hide those histories.

A check-off box on an application form won't help in that cause. Someone who has changed his or her name can simply check "no" to such questions. What's needed is more proactive interviews of job seekers. Employers can and should ferret out past prison time by asking an applicant why they were not working during a certain years during their careers. Dickinson's bill (AB 218 in this session) would not prevent such questioning once a job seeker got past the initial application round. In writing our Aug. 30 editorial, we should have been clearer on where we did or did not stand. For Dickinson and others on the opinion highway, I regret that we failed to do so.

Stuart Leavenworth is The Bee's editorial page editor.

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