Job applicants no longer need to disclose any criminal history when applying to work for Montgomery County, which on Thursday joined cities and counties across the country in waiving the requirement.

The new policy is aimed at helping those who are leaving jail find employment and reduce their chances of being rearrested, said Josh Shapiro, chairman of the county commissioners.

"Montgomery County has now officially banned the box, and that is the box that often shuts people out from second chances," he said, referring to the box that candidates check on applications if they have been convicted of a crime.

The county joined Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and four other governments in Pennsylvania that have already removed the requirement, as have more than 100 cities and counties and 24 states, according to a survey by the National Employment Law Project.

In some cities, including Philadelphia, the legislation extends to private employers. In Montgomery County, it affects only candidates for county-government jobs. It became effective immediately with Thursday's announcement at the commissioners meeting.

Donna Pardieu, director of human resources for the county, said applicants will not go through background checks until they have received conditional job offers. In the case of a criminal history, she said, the county will consider the nature of the offense, the time that has passed, and the applicant's references.

Previously, job candidates were not automatically ruled out if they had criminal convictions. But, Pardieu said, with a high volume of applicants, hiring managers might tend to rule out those with convictions listed on the first page.

Commissioner Joseph C. Gale, the only Republican on the three-member board, said he had not been a part of discussions about the new policy and opposed it.

"That's the best way to determine whether someone's being honest and forthright, to see if they check the box," he said.

Gale also said he thought the policy posed a safety risk for county employees, because they would not know about the possible criminal backgrounds of candidates arriving for job interviews.

"It's safer to know who's coming through the door," he said as the commissioners spoke with reporters after the meeting.

Shapiro countered that people who are charged with crimes and working their way through the justice system already visit county buildings every day and that security measures already are in place.

"I think the claims he's making relative to the safety and well-being of our employees are baseless, groundless, and have no bearing on reality," Shapiro said.

Gale then added that he thought an initial face-to-face interview with job candidates would be the best time to discuss criminal history, rather than once a conditional job offer is made.

Other county officials touted the new employment policy as one of many the county has make to reduce recidivism. In 2013, 41 percent of offenders released from the county jail returned after their release. In the last two years, officials said, the recidivism rate has dropped to 39 percent.

The county's workforce investment board was one of only 20 nationwide to receive a federal grant last year to create a center to help inmates find jobs before they leave jail, or within 90 days of release.

So far this year, 43 inmates have participated, and 10 have full-time jobs. Carolina DiGiorgio, director of the commerce department, said none of the participants has returned to jail.

Since the county encourages employers to hire past offenders, Shapiro said, it was important that county officials be willing to do the same.

"When you reduce the recidivism," he said, "you reduce the amount of crime and you ultimately make everyone safer."

lmccrystal@phillynews.com

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