Considered one of the broadest anti-discrimination documents in the nation, the act offers protection based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, familial status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, disability, source of income, and place of residence or business.”
Now, Barry and advocates hope to include the words “past arrests and convictions” to that list.
“The idea of the criminal justice system is, they send you to jail for rehabilitation and punishment, and once you have served your time, it seems to me, your debt has been paid to society,” said Barry, who has had several run-ins with the law, including a 1990 conviction for misdemeanor drug possession.
In recent years, as officials have grappled with the city’s unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the council have pledged to reexamine the treatment of ex-offenders trying to reenter the workforce.
As Barry noted, about 10 percent of D.C. residents have a criminal record. People with such records, advocates and city leaders say, are far less likely to be hired — which is one reason the jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in Ward 8.
If Barry’s legislation is adopted, an employer would be allowed to inquire about a criminal record only after a “conditional (job) offer” has been made. If an employer rescinds the offer based on a past arrest, he would have to submit documentation explaining why the applicant could not work in that job.
Max Farrow, a spokesman for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said that business leaders oppose the proposal because it would add “red tape” and lead to more lawsuits.
“We are in favor of putting every D.C. resident back to work, but only in a manner in which the businesses elect to employ them and are protected,” Farrow said. “We don’t think it’s fair to add them to the protected class — that is essentially rewarding them for poor choices they have made in the past.”
Instead of amending the city’s Human Rights Act, Farrow said the council should embrace the recommendations of the Council for Court Excellence, which spent two years studying the issue. In a report titled “Unlocking Employment Opportunity,” the council concluded that companies would hire more ex-offenders if the city enacted liability protection for businesses that hire them.
The report, which says that 8,000 D.C. residents are released from jail each year, also recommends that the city’s jail issue “certificates of good standing” to inmates who complete their sentence so they can try to assure employers that they are reformed.