A Parting Gift

Monday, January 8, 2007

IN ONE OF HIS last acts as mayor of Washington, Anthony A. Williams (D) showed the good judgment to veto poorly drawn legislation that would make persons who've been released from prison a protected class of citizens under the city's Human Rights Act. The question now is whether the newly constituted D.C. Council will have the wisdom to let this bad bill die.

In a Jan. 2 letter to the council, Mr. Williams aptly summed up the very real concerns with a bill that for all its good intentions would have damaging consequences. "Although the intent of the legislation is to prevent outright discrimination against an ex-offender based solely on the fact that he or she has a criminal record, the bill goes much further in a way that may compromise public safety or unnecessarily create issues of liability that could be litigated whenever an employer denies an ex-offender" employment, Mr. Williams wrote. He also wondered whether it was right to give ex-offenders the same protection against bias in employment and housing that is reserved for people with characteristics that they can't control, such as gender or age or race.

With some 60,000 former offenders making the District their home, the council is right to want to address the legitimate issues of reentry and rehabilitation. But this bill does nothing to deal with the problems that underlie the struggle of many ex-offenders in trying to build new lives: illiteracy, mental health problems, substance abuse or lack of job skills. Moreover, by not making any exceptions for people convicted of violent crimes, the bill creates unacceptable dangers to the public.

Other states have laws that seek to protect the rights of ex-offenders, but none of them goes as far as this legislation. Council members who approved the measure in a 10 to 2 vote believed that they took care of the concerns of those in the business community and law enforcement through some hurried amendments. Yet under the bill a home health-care agency would have to hire someone who had been freed 10 years ago after serving time for assaulting an elderly woman; a convicted arsonist released from prison 2 1/2 years ago could not be denied an apartment in a five-unit building. Employers and others should be encouraged to take a chance with people who have demonstrated that they are worth that risk, but they must be able to bring their judgment to bear in individual circumstances.

It is clear that in the rush and emotion of its last meeting, the outgoing council wasn't paying sufficient attention. The incoming council should heed Mr. Williams's warning and let his veto stand.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company