D.C. Council member Marion Barry is driving legislation to give ex-offenders legal safeguards against employment discrimination, a proposal that unnerves some in the business community and activists covered by similar protections.
Hoping to jump-start a proposal that has floated around for a decade, Barry (D-Ward 8) has been reaching out to council colleagues to gauge interest in adding people charged with a crime to the city’s Human Rights Act.
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.
Yet, D.C. leaders have signaled that they plan to aggressively pursue more opportunities for ex-offenders. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council approved a bill that prohibits city agencies from asking about someone’s arrest record on an application or during an initial job interview.
But extending the policy to the private sector could split the 13-member body.
“It’s probably not a good idea,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). “You need to go slow here, because you need to realize there are many reasons you want to consider prior incarceration for jobs, or housing or whatever it may be, such as putting an embezzler at a bank.”
Although he would not speculate on the bill’s chances, Barry said he was contacting each of his colleagues to try to win their support.
“Nobody expects a bank to hire a bank robber,” said Barry, who is seeking reelection next year. “But there are a number of jobs out there that people can do regardless of . . . a record. A lot of guys are going to prison and [come out] having developed skills and are qualified to do a whole bunch of jobs.”
Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, a lawyer at the National Employment Law Project , said that a growing number of states and cities are embracing anti-discrimination policies for ex-offenders.
“With technology being what it is, maybe five, six, seven years ago, if you had something in your past, you could maybe get away with it,” Natividad Rodriguez said. “But now, these things are just haunting you. Something they did in their teens or 20s keeps coming back, and they are having problems getting a job.”
But Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, said that the District’s Human Rights Act was developed to protect those who faced discrimination for “arbitrary circumstances.”
“People do background checks for a reason . . . and that is not arbitrary discrimination,” Rosendall said.
Barry said his proposal is a matter of basic fairness for those who have done their time.