- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

Haywood Warner, 54, can’t get a job and can’t get low-income housing benefits. Why? He’s an ex-offender. Though Mr. Warner’s conviction was in 1984, he said employers won’t hire him because of his ex-offender status. He has applied “everywhere, you could say.” Employers tell him, “We’ll call you back,” but they never do. So he tries to call them but can never get hold of anyone.

Activists will testify Wednesday before the D.C. Council on legislation designed to change the scenarios Mr. Warner and countless other ex-offenders face every day. The Human Rights for Ex-Offenders Amendment Act would make former convicts a protected class under the D.C. Human Rights Act in an attempt to shield them from discrimination.

“There are between 60,000 and 80,000 ex-offenders in the District, the highest in the nation,” said council member Marion Barry, sponsor of the bill. “There have been repeated situations where an ex-offender tries to get a job and employers say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”

Marina Streznewski of the D.C. Jobs Council will testify in support of the bill. She said the issue should be especially pressing in light of a tough economy and high unemployment.

“Employers are seeing an individual’s offender status as a way of sorting among candidates,” she said. “[Ex-offenders] have paid their debt to society. How long should they be expected to pay?”

But opponents said that amending the Human Rights Act to include ex-offenders would increase employer liability. Indeed, business groups succeeded in blocking previous versions of the bill starting in 2005. Representatives from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, for example, worry that employers could feel forced to hire ex-offenders for fear of a lawsuit.

“If two equally qualified candidates are vying for one position, will the ex-offender be hired simply to avoid a potential lawsuit? We hope not,” chamber President Barbara Lang said in 2007 testimony.

She also said the bill could push jobs out of the city, with employers finding it easier to conduct business in Maryland and Virginia rather than face increased liability issues in the District.

The Consortium of Universities and the D.C. Hospital Association both oppose the bill for the safety of what they call “vulnerable populations” - young students and sick patients.

The bill, however, makes one major provision for employers: It allows them to rescind job offers if the nature of the conviction rationally relates to the line of work.

“I don’t expect a bank to hire a bank robber,” Mr. Barry said.

Opponents said discrimination is not the reason ex-offenders can’t get jobs.

“This is a bill that feels good, but this bill does not give anybody a job,” said Janene Jackson of the D.C. chamber. “It’s really a very shortsighted way of addressing the issue of how you get somebody released from prison meaningful employment.”

Ms. Jackson said ex-offenders need job training and rehabilitation help. For that reason, the chamber supports the Successful Re-entry Act, which also will be featured in Wednesday’s public hearing. The act calls on the mayor to develop a comprehensive D.C. government plan to help returning offenders reintegrate into society.

Though federal agencies such as the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency sponsor some re-entry and job-training programs for ex-offenders, Mr. Barry said he wants the District itself to spend “a significant amount” of its $9 billion budget on prisoner re-entry. He conceded he doesn’t know how much such a plan would cost but emphasized that it would save the District money in the long run by reducing recidivism.

Howard Moore, director of the prison ministry at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Northeast, who works with hundreds of returning prisoners a year, said ex-offenders’ No. 1 need is housing, followed by employment and health care.

“Once they come back out into the community, if they don’t have the support they need, they’re liable to go back to old habits,” he said.

He also sees a need for an anti-discrimination law, as he says many ex-offenders omit their offenses on job applications, knowing they will be rejected otherwise. They are later terminated for falsifying their applications.

That happened to Mr. Warner in 1995. He left out his convictions - one for robbery, two for selling narcotics - on a job application for a road-maintenance position. He was hired and worked for two years until his background was checked. The employer fired him for lying on his job application.

“But if I wouldn’t have lied, you understand, I wouldn’t have gotten the job,” he said. “And I wasn’t doing anything but pushing the lawn mower.”

Mr. Warner is attending a faith-based job-training program and is looking for work. He said he doesn’t want to return to breaking the law.

“I’m just fightin’, just tryin’ to survive, on a legit level,” he said.

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