Published on May 11, 2015 in The Vindicator (Link)
By ELIZABETH LEHMAN
Warren did it. Youngstown did it. So have 100 other communities and 13 states. Now, it’s Ohio’s turn to consider “Banning the Box.”
Two state representatives from Canton, Kirk Schuring, (R, Canton) and Rep. Steve Slesnik, (D, Canton) introduced legislation in February that would make it illegal to ask about a job applicant’s criminal record before making a conditional job offer.
“House Bill 56 is intended to ensure that ex-offenders in our state have a fair chance in seeking and securing job opportunities with public employers,” said Schuring.
Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, (D-Youngstown), is one of the co-sponsors and the ranking member of the Commerce and Labor Committee that has had several hearings on the bill.
“The Ohio Fair Hiring Act will help those who have overcome past mistakes and want to be productive, taxpaying citizens to obtain gainful employment in the public sector,” said Lepore-Hagan.
The proposed legislation would allow applicants with felony convictions to get further into the interviewing process before background checks are made. This gives them a chance to be more than just another application immediately thrown into the trash.
This will force public employers to consider people they might not have considered otherwise, said Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, Cincinnati-based non-profit law office, during hearing testimony March 3.
“The most common function of asking about criminal records very early in the hiring process is simply to instantly reject those job applicants,” said JohnsonGrove. “The (bill) will be a boon to the 1.92 million Ohioans – 1 in 6 people – who have a misdemeanor or felony record.”
Akim Lattermore, 47, of Youngstown is one of those Ohioans. She served five years in the 1990s for aggravated robbery and receiving stolen property. While in prison, she earned a GED and a degree in office administration. Her return home and back into society wasn’t easy. She’d get jobs only to lose them after a few weeks when employers learned of her felony status.
“How long are you going to make me pay for a crime I committed when I was a kid?” asks Lattermore. “I have kids, grandkids, there’s been 21 years. I’ve reformed my behavior, I’ve changed my ways, and I’ve done everything I can do to be an active participant in society.”
She now works with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborate and the Free Indeed prison ministry in Warren, where she advocates for others.
Another advocate is Rebecca Soldan, program coordinator at the Oak Hill Collaborative and program director at United Returning Citizens, both in Youngstown.
“Our justice system was based on the understanding that if you commit a crime, you do your time, you pay for it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s built in that people just need to suffer indefinitely for it. The more people we can put back to work, the better.”
That makes sense to Patrick V. Kerrigan, director of the Oak Hill Collaborative in Youngstown. He is also a former Youngstown Municipal Court Judge, who served 13 months for extortion in the late 1990s. The practice of immediately discarding felons from the employment pool is illogical in many ways, he said.
“If you don’t let a person coming out of prison have the opportunity to get a job, you are condemning that person to a lifetime of unemployment and desperation – and it’s going to lead to further criminal activity,” said Kerrigan. “It’s a heck of a lot more money to keep somebody in prison than to help him or her on their way to becoming a productive citizen again.”
While the proposed law only works for public jobs, Soldan would like to see this spread to the private sector. In 2014, Youngstown banned the box and there were a few hires.
“It is tough in a city that’s not doing a lot of hiring,” said Soldan. “What we really need is for this to move to private enterprise.”
“It’s more a symbolic gesture, both in Warren and Youngstown, and if you can get the state to do it. The real key is obviously to get it into private industry and convince them to do it.”
Many employers say hiring felons would expose them to lawsuits. However, there is protection available.
The Federal Bonding Program provides a $5,000 fidelity bond to protect businesses that hire felons. Also, the federal government offers the Work Opportunity Tax Credits, up to $2,400 per employee with a felony conviction.
In Ohio, the Department of Corrections offers Certificates of Qualification for Employment as well as Certificates of Achievement and Employability. Both attest that a person is suitable to be employed, and protects employers.
“It not only removes the sanctions that limit people from getting certain positions, but it also removes negligent hiring liability,” said Soldan. “So if something did happen on the job, the employers themselves would not be held responsible for that employee’s actions.”
Kerrigan also points out a problem with licensure in the state. There are 750 job classifications that require professional licenses. Felons don’t qualify.
“You can’t be a cosmetologist. You can’t do hair because you have a felony record. You can’t sell hearing aids if you have a felony record. The list just goes on and on and on,” he said.
So far, the only vocal opposition comes from the Ohio Public Employer Labor Relations Association, which bills itself as a non-partisan group of public employees. That group submitted a position paper at the March 17 Commerce and Labor Committee hearing.
“There is no comparable statute requiring public employers to consider whether to hire minority or women candidates or any other applicants for employment. Forcing specific criteria on public employers will treat applicants convicted of a felony more favorably than other applicants,” the paper states.
That group is also concerned with possible lawsuits and the need to rely heavily on legal council in the hiring process.
While limited in scope, the bill would allow more people to work and contribute to society after they’ve completed their sentences. That’s a great first step, said Lattermore during her testimony before the Commerce and Labor committee.
“You want us to pay taxes; we want to pay taxes. You want us to work; we want to work.”
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