City must open a door to second chances

March 09, 2000|By J. Peter Sabonis

WHICH IS easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven," or "You're hired"?

Based on the experiences of those who are coming in droves to our legal services program seeking expungement of their criminal offenses so they can find a job, it's the former. Past offenses may be forgiven in every place but the one that counts now -- the marketplace.

Every day, I deliver the bad news. Criminal record expungement, a court process that wipes the offense clean from the court, police and state archival records, is not available for offenses where the defendant was convicted, even of a misdemeanor offense. The governor's pardon of convictions is rare.

Forgiveness limited

Absolution is limited to charges dropped or resolved without conviction, which, unbeknownst to most, are listed on background checks that employers can summon through the Internet.

I have been a lawyer for 15 years, and I'm used to being lied to and manipulated, but the reasons I hear for criminal behavior often ring true: theft offenses committed during periods of active drug addiction; handgun offenses committed during youth; assaults in neighborhood disputes and domestic situations -- even domestic violence victims charged by their abusers for fighting back.

They all share stories of recovery, rehabilitation and transformation, and can show the acts that prove it.

They also share stories about employers that are stupefying. Valerie worked as a temporary employee for four weeks with an employer who raved about her. The temporary agency was replaced by another. The employer asked her to stay on, but the new temp agency rejected her because of a 6-year-old theft conviction. No questions were asked about the drug activity that characterized her life then, which has been absent for five years. She received only a statement of policy followed by mock compassion.

Another temp, Timothy, works with an employer who won't hire him as a permanent employee because of his record. His good work continues, but is rewarded at a lower wage, with no health benefits, because of his prior mistakes.

Others don't even get in the employer's door. Six years ago, Dwight's then-companions left him in a car where a handgun was found. The resulting misdemeanor conviction recently caused a newspaper to withdraw its offer of a warehouse job because of its across-the-board "no conviction" policy. Dwight was not asked about his life since then, his involvement in an employment program, his successful employment elsewhere, his marriage and fatherhood.

Marked for life?

Other similar stories come to me from the staff of welfare-to-work and empowerment zone employment programs. Though some have been able to establish hiring relationships with previously reluctant employers, most steer otherwise promising employees burdened with criminal records away from certain businesses. Given the strong economic times, many are hired but find, as Timothy did, that they can't move up the ladder. Others are simply left out of the market.

In the late 1970s, the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) examined the impact on minorities of hiring policies relative to arrests and convictions. Given the disproportionate number of minorities caught in the criminal justice system, they concluded that these seemingly neutral hiring rules adversely affected backs and Hispanics.

To escape discrimination suits based on race, the EEOC asked employers to show "business justification" for their practices, by treating employment applicants with criminal histories on a case-by-case basis. Criminal offenses were to be examined and analyzed in light of the nature of the offense, the time that had passed since the offense, and the relationship of the offense to the nature of the job.

When I explain this to those who come to us, they cry "amen." That's all they want: to be seen as individuals, to be able to explain, to be given a chance. They accept responsibility for their past and understand that actions have consequences.

But they bristle when their efforts to turn their lives around are not even asked about.

The EEOC, however, has been reluctant to pursue these claims aggressively, concerned about the fallout in a Congress attuned to business interests.

State by state basis

Some states and localities have taken matters into their own hands. In New York, a state law requires employers to abandon broad-based hiring prohibitions. Courts also can issue certificates that create presumptions of applicant rehabilitation. Pennsylvania and California have similar laws. These laws do not require hiring, simply fair treatment.

The time has come for similar measures here in Baltimore. About 5,000 Baltimore residents are released each year from the corrections system. Only 10 percent are employed upon release. "Zero tolerance" and "quality of life" law-enforcement policies espoused by Mayor Martin O'Malley and the Community Court will increase exponentially the number of future job applicants saddled with criminal histories.

When Jesus asked the elders of his time which was easier to say to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven," or "take up your mat and walk," he recognized that anyone could say the former. While his healing of the paralytic gave him credibility, it also suggested that spiritual redemption has a transforming, visible effect.

It is time in Baltimore to give legs to our lip service about forgiveness for those crippled by past mistakes.

Peter J. Sabonis is executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc.

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