RICHMOND -- Private businesses that contract for work with the city will be prohibited from asking most applicants about prior criminal convictions on employment applications and, in some cases, from inquiring into the criminal history of an applicant at all, the City Council decided Tuesday.

The new ordinance, which passed 6-1, has exceptions for jobs working with children and seniors, and other "sensitive positions" as defined by the police department.

"It's about fairness in hiring," said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who sponsored the ordinance. "What this policy is about is leveling the playing field, a playing field that has not been level for black and brown folks."

The new law, which Beckles described as the most "cutting-edge" ban-the-box law in the country, applies to any business with more than 10 employees involved in any form of contract with the city, regardless of where the business is based. These businesses must remove the box inquiring about criminal history from their employment applications.

Also, the businesses are prohibited from making any inquiry at any time into criminal history unless it's for a position in which background checks are required by state or federal law.

"(The law) does not prevent an employer from doing a background check," said City Manager Bill Lindsay. "The purpose is to prevent criminal history from being used as an applicant screening mechanism."

The provisions prohibiting private businesses from doing background checks for some employees rankled some residents.

"What I don't agree with is the prohibition against employers making any inquiry at any time into an applicant's criminal history," Felix Hunziker, a resident and police commissioner, wrote on his Facebook page.

"This requirement seeks to make criminal history a protected class similar to gender, race or religion, which is preposterous considering that said history is the result of one's bad personal decisions rather than one's innate characteristics."

Councilman Tom Butt was the lone dissenting vote, after his suggestions to amend the ordinance and allow employers some latitude to inquire about criminal history were rejected.

"My amendment was intended simply to bring it in line with the most aggressive ordinances already adopted and with recommendations of the (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and federal civil rights law," Butt wrote in an email Wednesday. "The adopted version is way out there. I think it will be a nightmare to enforce and will discourage business and investment in Richmond."

Beckles and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin were adamant about passing the law without additional tweaks, noting that they had conferred extensively with police officials for weeks before settling on the ordinance's scope.

Beckles said the new law, which expands existing ban-the-box ordinances applying to city jobs, is key in reducing the city's high unemployment and reducing recidivism. Dozens of parolees return to the city from incarceration stints each month. Nearly 80 percent of local parolees are unemployed, according to a city staff report.

Beckles couched the issue in overt racial terms, calling current corrections policies "the new Jim Crow," and alluding to pre- and post-Civil War laws aimed at oppressing African-Americans.

"Laws are in effect to keep black and brown citizens in slave labor," Beckles said.

According to the National Employment Law Project, Richmond is one of 43 cities nationwide and eight cities and counties in California that have adopted some form of ban-the-box legislation. Compton, in Southern California, is listed in the November 2012 NELP report as another city that has extended the law to private businesses that contract with the city.

Councilman Jael Myrick said the new law was among the greatest innovations he has been a part of since his appointment to the council earlier this year.

"We are dealing with a true social justice issue here," Myrick said. "Removing a barrier against people being discriminated against."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.