EXPLAINER: How Harris Co. is giving job seekers with a previous criminal history a ‘fair chance’ at employment

Harris County is working to give job seekers, who have had a previous criminal history a better chance at finding employment.

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In early January, county commissioners passed the "Fair Chance" policy, which means residents who may have a criminal background, do not have to disclose it on their job applications.

What is the Fair Chance Policy?

According to County Attorney Christian Menefee, this does not mean employers are left in the dark when it comes to who they are hiring but instead gives employers an opportunity to get to know their applicants and conduct a background check after an interview or before a job offer is made.

What activists say about the Fair Chance Policy

Proponents of the policy, like Kirsten Ricketts, an activist and founder of Restorer of City Streets, a nonprofit that helps previously incarcerated women re-enter society, say it would help many applicants find a career, especially women.

"Women have a very hard time getting out and getting into a [career] field," she said. "Lots of men have vocational trades, women don't have that…and so women especially need an extra hand up - not a handout, but a hand up, to enable them to come out of poverty. And really what our criminal justice system does, is it sets a trap to keep people in poverty."

Ricketts adds that getting rid of the "box" applicants have to check to indicate they have a criminal history would help job seekers feel less hesitant to apply in the first place.

"What happens is a lot of people become discouraged, and they won't even go out and apply for jobs, because they know that they're going to have to check that box," she explained. "It's like, ‘they're not going to look at me anyway,’ they get turned down, left and right doors are being slammed in their face."

How will the policy help?

Experts like FOX 26 Senior Legal Analyst Chris Tritico say the new policy could also potentially curb recidivism.

"The thing that causes people to go back to a life of crime is an inability to find gainful employment, that will allow them to take care of themselves and their family," he said. "And then they end up back depressed again, and back on drugs or alcohol because they don't know any other way, and they can't find a way out of the problem that got them there in the first place."

The policy was approved in a 3-2 vote on January 4, with much of the skepticism surrounding the question of when employers should be notified of a job applicant’s criminal history. 

What skeptics say about the policy

For example, during the County Commissioner’s Court meeting Commissioner Tom Ramsey, who voted against the policy, suggested it could result in "unintended consequences."

"They can still do a background check and look at this and say, ‘you know what? That was some kind of a white-collar crime or…it happened years ago, we’re going to overlook that [but] to say you can’t know or ask that question before you decide to hire [someone] I think that could have some unintended consequences."


This skepticism was shared by Vlad Davidiuk, a Republican strategist based in Harris County, who argued the policy may have been passed too quickly.

"We have a very significant change to policy that is going to affect, broadly speaking the entire county and all of county government," he explained. "It does raise a significant amount of concerns that whether or not the policy is being adopted, not only in a partisan way but also with some lack of foresight."

"So I think that the county commissioners were rightly concerned that perhaps this policy was being adopted a little too quickly without some more introspection and some more research with regard to how it could potentially affect not only the employees who work for the county, but the after-effects, the citizens who live in Harris County, but also the long term effects down the road, how this could have impacts to hiring practices in the future," he concluded.

Telling your story 

However, like Ricketts, Tritico says it makes a significant difference if an applicant discloses their past before a job interview.

"When you have to check the box that says ‘I was convicted of a felony,’ before you ever get the interview, then those the felons never get the interview, you never get in the door because they're excluded before they get a chance to talk to anybody," Tritico said. "That's what this fair chance policy says: we're not going to exclude you by the fact that you had a problem.

"We're going to let you in the door," he continued. "We may then talk to you about the problem that you had but at least you get the same chance as everybody else to get in the door, get the interview, we're still going to ask you about it. We're just not going to exclude you simply because you had the problem."

Final thoughts on the Fair Chance policy

Ultimately, the consensus on the Fair Chance policy, at least from those we spoke to, is that offering an equal opportunity to those who have had a checkered past seems beneficial for both the employers and their potential employees.

"If you get the chance to meet these people, find out who they are, what happened, and why they're in this in the condition that they were in, got them in the place they were, you might actually hire those people," Tritico said. "You might actually find out that these human beings are worth a job worth your employment, your care, and your love."

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"Americans understand that people who have had encounters with law enforcement who have had encounters with our justice system, many of whom have had this happen through no fault of their own when you have so many laws, that it becomes impossible to understand which laws are you're breaking on a daily basis for many people," Davidiuk said. "The fact that a criminal record or have some kind of a conviction is hanging over you is a burden that very many people have to deal with on a daily basis and it has excluded many people from the workforce who otherwise would be a great asset to multiple organizations.

"So having this policy in place is a good first step to try to see if we can remedy some of those discrepancies," he continued. "But again, these policies have to be adopted in a very smart and thoughtful way and not politicized and not adopted along partisan lines."


"I think it's a wonderful thing that Harris County is doing and how they've, opened this up to allow people to apply," Ricketts concluded. "And I hope that the private sector will take a look at this and possibly expand their opportunities as well…I just think that they're missing out on a wonderful work source.

"And these people let me tell you, you give them a second chance," she added. "They're going to give you 110% They're going to be grateful for the opportunity that's been given to them because it's so hard today for them to be able to find a job."