SIMMONS: Whether to hire or elect ex-cons a hot question

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ex-cons and their supporters say they are tired of formerly incarcerated residents being discriminated against, so they are using any means necessary to change their circumstances.

With Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, not returning to Washington, voters in Chicago will have to decide who replaces the former congressman who has held his seat since 1995 and was re-elected just last month. Potential candidates include a convicted child-sex offender and a minister who vows to propose federal legislation to expunge the criminal records of low-level felons.

In Maryland, a legal battle is brewing over whether Prince George’s County businessman Greg Hall, who 20 years ago was convicted of gun charges and had murder charges dropped, should fill the seat of a state lawmaker convicted earlier this year of stealing $800.

In the meantime, add the D.C. Council to a list of legislatures looking to redeem ex-offenders with a measure that would prohibit private employers from rejecting out of hand applicants who are convicted felons.

Lawmakers, wanna-be politicians and organizations such as the American Bar Association, Human Rights Watch and Change.org are buttressing an anti-discrimination mantle on behalf of ex-offenders, including restoring their voting rights and aiding in their job prospects.

Currently, 32 states restore voting rights to felons who are no longer in the criminal justice system, while an estimated 3.9 million Americans have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions.

As for employment, the nationwide “ban-the-box” movement — which aims to remove the space for information about prior arrests and convictions from employment, housing and education applications — has gained measurable success in recent years. Here in the nation’s capital, the D.C. Council already has passed legislation that deems ex-offenders applying for city jobs a protected class. And lawmakers are poised to vote on legislation this week that would lay down a similar prohibition on private entities — a bill strongly opposed by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which contends it would have “disastrous effects” on the business community at large, including hospitals and institutions of higher learning.

Two candidates seeking Mr. Jackson’s 2nd Congressional District seat have joined the call to ease the lives of ex-cons. One, the Rev. Anthony Williams, is pledging to introduce federal “legislation that would allow ‘lower-level’ felonies to be expunged.”

The other, Mel Reynolds, served time in an Illinois prison for having sex with a 16-year-old and for federal financial and campaign fraud charges. State law prohibits him from holding state office, but not from holding a seat in Congress again, where he served from 1993 to 1995, when he was convicted and forced to resign.

Mr. Reynolds, who cannot hide from his wrongs, said last week at a campaign rally that “I made mistakes” and “I want to serve,” while his supporters held signs that said “Redemption.”

The Maryland case of Mr. Hall has created a political and legal boondoggle.

Having served time for drug and gun charges, Mr. Hall is supported by some county Democrats to fill the seat vacated by Delegate Tiffany Alston. The titular head of the party, Gov. Martin O’Malley, shook his head.

The case pits redemption against political prerogatives and a judge has set Tuesday as the date to hear both sides.

What ex-cons and their supporters are essentially saying is that he served his time, now give him a break.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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