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Muhammad delays criminal history bill for more work

CITY HALL – By all indications, the Board of Aldermen is solidly behind 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad’s bill prohibiting employers from putting questions about criminal histories on job applications.

But when the matter came up for an initial vote at their meeting Friday, some aldermen expressed concerns about matters including who would enforce the law and whether Muhammad had spoken with enough business people about it.

When the discussion ended, Muhammad didn’t call for a vote, but placed the bill on the board’s informal calendar for more work.

“I hear your concerns, loud and clear,” Muhammad said, noting that he had already changed the bill from a first version. “I have no problems with continuing to work with other aldermen and my colleagues to perfect this legislation.”

The bill would prevent employers in St. Louis from making initial decisions on hiring or promoting based on an applicant’s criminal history unless they could show how it was relevant to the hiring decision. Employers couldn’t ask about the applicant’s criminal history until he or she is in a final pool for the position and everyone in that pool is asked.

Those requirements wouldn’t apply when laws or regulations prohibit people with a criminal history from holding certain jobs. 

Twenty-Fourth Ward Alderman Bret Narayan said he was solidly in favor of the bill, called “Ban the Box,” because applications couldn’t include a question about job history. But Narayan said, “I think it’s incredibly important that we get it 100 percent right, because there are some serious big business interests that will be looking certainly to strike down legislation like this.”

Narayan said he didn’t see anything that showed where employers could have a hearing. 

Muhammad responded that the city’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency and the License Collector’s office, which would share enforcement duties, would establish a procedure for such matters and the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee would approve it. That committee also would be involved with investigations.

Twenty-eighth Ward Alderwoman Heather Navarro asked whether having the Legislation Committee involved with investigations would be a violation of separation of powers.

“Our duty is to legislate, and there’s another branch of government that does the enforcement,” she said. 

And 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn asked whether Muhammad had talked with the Regional Business Council or other business associations about how this would affect them.

Muhammad said he had talked with small businesses in his neighborhood and others in north St. Louis, but not other places. 

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus said any employer could get around the measure by checking casenet.net, a website that allows a person to look up all Missouri court cases. However, she said that because employers couldn’t ask about an applicant’s criminal record initially, they couldn’t fire people because they lied about their criminal record or didn’t answer questions about it. 

In other action, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd introduced a bill to make it unlawful for a person under the age of 18 to possess a handgun. Violators could face fines of up to $500 and as much as 30 days of jail time. 

“The traditional course of action is when somebody is in possession of a firearm illegally, the police will confiscate it,” Boyd said. “Right now, they can’t do anything. So if they see a 16-year-old with a handgun, it’s like, ‘Oh, be careful.’”

The bill is based on a federal law that in most cases prevents a juvenile from possessing a handgun. According to information in the bill, its regulations correspond with state law. Among the exceptions are if the minor has the written permission of a parent or guardian who has not been convicted of a crime.

Another bill introduced on Friday by Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia would prohibit the city or any of its agencies from asking job applicants about their salary history.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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