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New national guidelines for hiring ex-offenders

Wed, Jun 26, 2013

Three national civil and workers’ rights groups released a guide for employers on May 21 intended to curb discrimination against jobseekers with criminal records. Would-be employers must consider relevance of the crime to the job and the amount of time since the conviction, or risk lawsuits from advocacy groups.

The National H.I.R.E. Network, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Workrights Institute prepared the guide, Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring in consultation with leaders of the background screening industry.

For the first time, employers can know the rules to follow when screening applicants with criminal records, said Paula Wolff, a senior executive at Metropolis Strategies, a business-based civic organization in the Chicago region.

“Basically what they’re saying is you cannot discriminate against somebody because they have a record, period,” said Wolff, who is also a former board member at the Safer Foundation, which is focused on successful reentry of people who were formerly incarcerated. “You have to take into account whether there was a conviction. And if they do have a conviction, you have to make sure that if you use it as an excuse not to hire them, it has to be relevant to the job.”

As an example, Wolff said that a person convicted of a sex crime could not be hired to drive a school bus, but someone convicted of passing a bad check might be eligible for this job.

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Best Practice Standards also notes that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is requiring employers to validate the legitimacy of consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) that screen potential new-hires, Wolff said. “The fact that the report is issued both by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and the National Work Rights Institute means that there’s some muscles behind it.”

A corrective step for those employers who are not using proper hiring methods could be “contrived lawsuits” similar to those related to fair housing, or racial/sexual discrimination in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Wolff said. Similar candidates, some with criminal records, some without, would apply for the same position to make sure standards were being followed.

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Both Cook County and the State of Illinois are progressive in helping people put their pasts behind them, said Gretchen Slusser, executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA). In partnership with the law firm of Morgan Lewis and Bockius, CGLA has trained lawyers and hiring managers including Amtrak, Walgreens and United Airlines to understand special laws that reduce or eliminate the legal effect of a criminal record and to develop a criminal records hiring policy that is legally compliant and socially responsible.

CGLA runs a help desk at the Daley Center four days a week (Mon-Thurs) and recently opened a second help center at the Markham courthouse.

CGLA has also worked for more than five years with Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown’s office to help people expunge or seal their records. Expungement is only open to people who have never been convicted, Slusser said. However, after four years, some convictions can be sealed, except for certain violent or sex crimes. Law enforcement always has access to these files.

For those who do not qualify for expungement or sealing, there are other forms of relief, such as Health Care Waivers, Certificates and Clemency. Health Care Waivers from the Illinois Department of Public Health allow people with various misdemeanors and even felonies such as theft or home invasion to be hired and work with patients, whether as certified nurses’ assistants or in food service. The qualifying period for the waiver starts one year after conviction for misdemeanors and three for felonies, with more time for successive convictions.

Certificates of good conduct are available at the county circuit court level one and two years after completion of misdemeanor and felony sentences, respectively.

A petition for executive clemency – which is a pardon from the Illinois governor—can also remove a record from the eyes of employers and landlords (but not law enforcement). CGLA advises a person to wait five to 10 years before filing a detailed essay about their record and subsequent life with the Prisoner Review Board. There is a four-year wait but Gov. Quinn has granted 40 percent of petitions.

“The biggest challenge is that the client base is poverty-stricken and the process of actually petitioning for relief can be very cumbersome,” Slusser said. The first step is to get your rap sheet, all necessary documentation and then complete and file paperwork and pay fees.”

“The Lawyers’ Committee has been contacted by workers who have been denied jobs because of criminal convictions 10, 15, 25, or 30 years ago, even though they have maintained clean records for the last 10 or 20 years,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “Employers need to stop excluding applicants because of old convictions that tell them nothing about the contribution that this job seeker can offer their companies today, convictions that are so old no trial court would consider the conviction relevant to the applicant’s truthfulness or character.”

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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