Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Do background checks unfairly weed out some volunteers?

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My just-out story in the TC Daily Planet (below).

Do background checks unfairly weed out some volunteers?

By Anna Pratt , TC Daily Planet
July 08, 2009

Due to stricter enforcement of a policy of criminal background checks in Minneapolis parks, some longtime volunteers and staffers have recently been let go. While proponents argue that it’s a necessary move to safeguard children against potentially dangerous people, others say the “systemic bias of the criminal justice system” excludes too many minorities, particularly black men.

Wanda Richardson, who frequents Powderhorn Park, said it has recently lost a couple dedicated workers as a result of background check failures, which the center’s director declined to comment on. At least one person had served the parks for many years, she said. Another recreation center on the city’s North Side, Farview, was hit especially hard, she said, when three baseball coaches failed the background check midway through the season. (Sara Ackmann, recreation district supervisor for the parks, confirmed that, adding replacements were found to complete the season.)

In a letter that Richardson co-wrote with another resident, Linda Vest Klein, and read aloud at the July 1 park board meeting, she said that while everyone agrees that “careful and thorough” background checks are important, “in light of the systemic racial bias in our criminal justice system, how we enforce a policy based solely on data from that system needs careful evaluation.”

Richardson explained that it’s not an attack on what the parks are doing. Rather, she advocates for a process that would more clearly delineate how to cope with certain gray areas. The way she sees, “Some accommodations have to be made. Our neighborhood is racially diverse … Removing non-white people has a detrimental effect,” said Richardson. “It’s not just philosophical. It’s a real-life issue. We have to find a way to include people. We all make mistakes.”

Park board commissioner Scott Vreeland said the subject is complex. “We have a policy that is more protective than what some people would like,” he said. “There may be instances where folks are well-liked. That’s where there’s difficulty. Whether someone is a nice person isn’t something that factors easily in terms of an effective policy,” he said.

Not unique to the parks
The policy, which requires all workers to be screened, has been around for years and isn’t unique to the park system, according to parks general manager Mike Schmidt. “I presuppose that if you look at the form, you’ll see if you don’t qualify. Then you can make decisions about whether you want to continue through the process.”

Regarding the volunteers and staffers who didn’t make the latest cut, he said there had been a “missing check and balance.” While he couldn’t say offhand how many people who had previously been employed were affected, “It’s not in the hundreds or even the 10s,” he said. “I dealt with two that came through my office.”

Park Police Chief Bradley Johnson said the process has been “tightened up this year” in conjunction with other park activities. Previously, the background check results were between the police and the hiring manager. Now, the human resources department is in the loop. Some people got by in the past because either the hiring manager ignored it or results didn’t come in before employees were brought on, he explained. More recently, “The risk manager took a look at the process and made some changes,” he said. “We want to protect people’s safety and protect the parks from liability.”

Although he didn’t have a figure for how many previous park workers have been denied lately, he said that from April through June, the park police conducted 1,200 background checks of people who were new or seasonal. Of those, 46 people failed the check. Six went through the steps of proving they had been rehabilitated and were reinstated, he said.

Crimes that would be grounds for denial are listed in Minnesota state statute 299.c60, including the following: child abuse, manslaughter, felony level assault or any assault crime committed against a minor, kidnapping, arson, criminal sexual conduct, and prostitution-related crimes.

Additionally, any crimes that relate to someone’s potential job duties are disqualifying. For example, someone who has stolen money can’t work in finance. To be clear, “We’re talking about convictions, not arrests,” he said. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there, that we’re denying a lot more people than we are.”

According to information that was gathered by the Council on Crime and Justice, the guidelines dictate that the park police consider whether it’s been more than a year since a misdemeanor conviction; more than five years since gross misdemeanor conviction and more than 10 years since felony conviction. Criminal convictions that don’t rise to the level of background check crimes are looked at on a case-by-case basis. Evidence of rehabilitation or non-compliance with court orders is taken into account. “If someone has a string of misdemeanor arrests and convictions, that is a sign that something is wrong,” according to council information.

How race comes into play

Minnesota has one of the highest racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the country, with African Americans comprising roughly 35 percent of prison inmates but only about 4.5 percent of the general population, according to Mark Haase, director of public policy and advocacy for the Council on Crime and Justice. Haase said via email that, for this reason, an EEOC ruling found that irrational barriers for people with criminal records violate part of the Civil Rights Act.

While certain kinds of offenders should be blocked from working with children or vulnerable adults, “I am afraid the Park Police may be eliminating many more individuals,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have enough information about it. “We need men of color, the most likely group to have a record, as well as others who may have had criminal pasts, to be mentors and leaders in order to help stop the cycle of incarceration.”

He recommended that those who are rejected be put through a civilian review process, while the race and disqualifying crimes of those denied employment or volunteer positions should be publicized. “I think the Park Police intent is good, but there needs to be more transparency and some protections put in place for the reasons stated previously. They are of course going to weed out anyone they have concerns about, but many of those people are needed and can be appropriate, not to mention allowing people to volunteer helps them to ‘rehabilitate,’” he said.

Calculating risk

John Wilson said on the Powderhorn Park Forum that a scoring system should be in place “where the length of time since a crime occurred and the security implications of that crime are factored into a mathematical model of the risk that person poses. My guess is that insurance actuaries would be able to come up with a reasonably valid algorithm after studying the issue.”

He continued that “if there was a risk score that predicted that person was a 2 percent risk of hurting someone and a 1 percent risk of theft or property damage, the company HR rep would have something tangible to go on as to whether or not the risk level was acceptable.”

Michael Thompson, who conducts risk assessments for violence and sexual offense recidivism, said that Wilson’s idea would require establishing certain norms while also taking into account the implications of the crime and the job. Even with those things in place, many other challenges remain. For example, what about “offenses that occurred in another state? Another country? Where does one get the official version of criminal history (the “rap sheet”)? What about the guy who claims he didn’t do it? What about charges that are rolled into a plea? What about felonies pled down to gross misdemeanors?”

A point system would need to be followed, without deviating based on personal hunches. Companies should be able to perform dynamic assessment based on their criteria, he said. Luckily, he added, “There are several organizations that are slowly but surely getting the word out that giving a felon an employment chance is not a risky venture.”

Additional community perspectives

Someone who posted anonymously on the Reporter’s Notebook page for this story said it’s about risk management and liability. “Imagine some volunteer working with the Park and Rec does something unspeakable to a child or vulnerable adult – it’s then discovered that this is part of a pattern – they’ve done this before, in a similar situation and were caught.”

“What do the parents do in our sue-happy society (after filing criminal charges against the perp)? Find a lawyer and sue the Park and Rec Dept and/or City (whoever they can hold liable) for allowing the individual to volunteer with them, despite the fact they have a procedure in place to filter out risky individuals. It’s due diligence to figure out what these high risk positions are and what the appropriate requirements should be.”

The commenter cited an example is from a Star Tribune story about a music teacher hired despite a past sexual assault conviction: “Nobody with the district ran a criminal check on Gregory B. Washington before he was hired. District policy requires contractors to complete background checks on their employees and the district reserves the right to review individual employees records.”

Another person, writing under the name of heldt2, wrote on the Reporter’s Notebook page: “Should we wait until someone with a criminal background does something unspeakable before we decide to play by the rules? If you decide to engage in criminal behavior, there is a price to pay. You have just put yourself into a high risk category. Citizens do not want to take that risk. I am shocked that there was not more strict enforcement before now.”

Kristina Keifer, who lives in St. Paul, commented on Facebook that it comes down to common sense. “I would advocate background checks on all employees and volunteers (not only for parks but any job), but some practical guidelines need to be established-minor theft or juvenile offenses are not necessarily appropriate for exclusion, pedophiles or violent crimes should absolutely be excluded!”

Minneapolis resident Fredda Scoby said via email that, “Background checks shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for volunteers. We are required to have background checks done on all our ESL teachers (they’re teaching adults) and the cost is only $5 a piece through Minneapolis Public Schools. In my opinion, background checks should be required at the least for those working with anyone vulnerable (youth or elders).”

Anna Pratt is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis. Email


Written by annapratt

July 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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