Aug 16, 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.



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