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Former D.C. felons seek to ‘Ban the Box’ on forms

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2010

Former D.C. felons are taking matters into their hands.

Some laws and policies are discriminating against them, and they are not going to lie down and take it anymore.

That was the message Thursday evening at Wilson’s Restaurant in center city, where about 75 ex-offenders braved a thunderstorm to register to vote and plan how to effectively speak with one voice at the polls and in city hall.

These men and women comprise a substantial voting bloc in D.C. and feel empowered by their turnout in the presidential election of Barack Obama. In D.C., an estimated 16,000 people are under the supervision of the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), and with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics having already purged more than 90,000 names off its voter rolls, former offenders aren’t taking any chances.

Their get-out-the-vote effort drew D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, a Democrat who is trying to hold onto his seat; sports newsman Glenn Harris; and boxing impresario Rock Newman, whose white Rolls Royce drew in supporters --and the merely curious -- alike.

"We want to stop the dependency," said WPFW producer and host Rhozier "Roach" Brown, one of the organizers of the campaign.

A primary goal is to "Ban the Box" -- eliminate the box on housing, employment and social service forms that asks whether the applicant has a criminal conviction or criminal record.

Merely asking the question violates the U.S. Constitution and opens the door for discrimination, former offenders say.

They also say it hurts ex-felons and their families because checking the box means potential employers will automatically throw the application in the trash and, when it comes to housing, former felons can easily be denied the opportunity to reunite with their families.

Their agenda also includes:

* Increased funding for the D.C. Office of Ex-Offender Affairs. Currently, only salaries for employees are budgeted, Mr. Brown said.

*Building a facility in the city that would house soon-to-be-released prisoners so the transition from incarceration is smoother.

* Creating a D.C. ombudsman position to coordinate programs and polices with the federal Bureau of Prisons, the agency responsible for incarcerating and monitoring all D.C. felons.

A new phrase, said Mr. Brown, has been coined in the District: "Suicide by prison."

"Marking X on applications is the kiss of death," he said.

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