- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2010

Former felons and their advocates are becoming increasingly assertive in the national debate about crime, claiming that they are being discriminated against not just in matters of voting but also employment and housing.

A movement called “Ban the Box” is urging lawmakers in the District of Columbia and elsewhere to limit or bar the “have you ever been convicted of a crime” question so that ex-felons’ applications for jobs, housing and the like aren’t rejected out of hand. They point out that “the box” makes it difficult for even well-intentioned ex-criminals to re-establish and integrate themselves into the social mainstream.

“If you can’t get a job, you can’t get a home, and if you can’t either, you can’t break the dependency. They can’t care for themselves or their families,” said Rhozier “Roach” Brown, who was released from prison in 1976 after President Ford commuted his life sentence for murder.

The debate stretches from the halls of Congress to state and local legislatures, and the discussion follows two common threads.

One issue is whether former felons are discriminated against if public and private employers and housing providers ask applicants about their criminal records. The other issue is race-related, hinging on accusations that blacks and Hispanics are unfairly targeted by employers who perform background and credit checks.

For example, a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco claims that a black bus driver who worked for a private transit firm was fired after the company learned of her prior welfare-fraud conviction. In another case, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a class-action lawsuit against a Dallas-based event-planning firm, Freeman Cos., charging discrimination against Hispanics, blacks and men.

Critics say such claims are nonsense.

“Background and credit checks are legitimate hiring and recruitment tools,” said Horace Cooper, a former visiting assistant professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law.

“There is no federal law making a refusal to hire convicted felons a crime, and felon status is not a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Especially in the midst of a recession, suits like these — which charge racial discrimination — falsely serve to only make hiring decisions unnecessarily harder and lessen the impact of real allegations of racism,” said Mr. Cooper, a member of the black think tank Project 21 and former Republican congressional aide.

Congress and the D.C. Council are pursuing legislative remedies on behalf of ex-convicts. Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, has introduced legislation, Fresh Start Act of 2010, that would allow nonviolent felons to have their records expunged.

Fresh Start calls for rewriting the federal criminal code to allow former felons to petition to have their records expunged if they meet certain requirements. Chief among those requirements are two caveats: 1) the petitioner has no other criminal convictions other than the original nonviolent offense; and 2) the petitioner has met all requirements of the sentencing court, including completion of prison and probation terms.

D.C. lawmakers are considering yet another remedy — effectively banning the box for D.C. government jobs.

Both the federal and D.C. measures are music to the ears of ex-offenders and their advocates, who say job and housing prospects are as grim as ever for former felons, whom they prefer to call “re-entry citizens,” and for those released from prison but on probation or parole.

“There are re-entry citizens who can’t go home because of housing policies and laws that prohibit them from living there,” said Mr. Brown, a radio producer, Ban the Box supporter and ex-felon. “Everybody is just a step away from being homeless.”

He and other advocates vow to leverage a voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drive to get ex-offenders and their families to back their proposals.

Scores of them — including D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat — attended such an event Thursday evening in Northwest Washington. For them, background checks and marking X on the criminal history box on a housing or job application is an automatic kiss of death against self-sufficiency.

The U.S. Justice Department may be on their side with federal funds and the formulation of policies to aid ex-felons who are transitioning from prison. Funding for re-entry grants to states have quadrupled to $100 million, and Justice has a sentencing and corrections working group on behalf of federal prisoners.

While critics applaud ex-felons’ redemption values, they defend employers in search of safe workplace environments.

“The notion that criminal background checks disadvantage blacks and Latinos is based in the reality that blacks are 38 percent of the prison population but only 12 percent of the general population,” said another Project 21 member, Joe Hicks, host of PJTV.com’s “The Hicks File.” “This shouldn’t be used as an argument for eliminating employment standards, but a reason to understand and combat the dysfunction and violent criminality that’s an all-too-real part of poor black urban life.”

A spokesman for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the Justice agency responsible for monitoring most D.C. returning felons, concedes lack of employment and housing opportunities can be problematic for ex-offenders, especially those who had little or no job experience or poor to no credit history before they were incarcerated.

On any given day, CSOSA touches the lives of an estimated 16,000 individuals, says CSOSA spokesman Leonard Sikes. And, he adds, community supervisors (or PO’s, as ex-felons call them) sometimes play the role of social workers.

But make no mistake, Mr. Sikes says, “public safety is the most important thing we do.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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