The Denver Post
In our ongoing conversation about ex-cons being shut out of the workforce because of their criminal records, I bring you to the state Capitol, where Monday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill addressing just that.
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat. It's his second run at the issue in two years. "I think we've been 'tough on crime' long enough," he tells me. "It's time to be 'smart on crime.' "
As you might expect, the hearing was full of emotion, with testimony from people who served their time only to come out and walk into a wall. No one will hire them. They can't find a place to live. They can't get a driver's license.
"When a man or woman has reached his or her level of disappointment, can't find another 'good face' to put on at one more interview, when the weight of their heads is too heavy to hold upright for the next receptionist taking their application and they contemplate going back to prison," it is not simply a sign of personal weakness but of what is in place, said Hassan Latif, a member of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Steadman's bill takes a cautious approach, weighing public safety and victims' and employers' rights. I'll just hit the highlights.
The most straightforward provision allows those who committed petty or municipal offenses to request the sealing of their records. The petition can be filed three years after the case has been closed or the defendant is no longer under supervision.
The second says the first time a defendant appears in court, he or she would receive a written advisement, basically saying: Listen, if you plead guilty or are convicted, you're not just facing jail time, fines, probation, parole. You later may find difficulty getting work, finding a place to live or getting a student loan. Your occupational license probably will be revoked, and forget about adopting children.
This is like one of those, "Oh, by the way, your legs might fall off" warnings that accompany prescription-drug commercials.
Mark Evans, deputy state public defender, compiled a list of these "collateral consequences" on his department's website.
In the zeal to appear tough on crime, Steadman told the committee, no one has bothered to take a step back and ask: Does this particular prohibition on felons really make the public safer?
Which brings us to the last provisions. The court could grant an order allowing someone being sentenced to community corrections or probation to keep a job or stay in public housing. For example, regulations prohibit adoption agencies from employing felons. But what if an agency wants — key word "wants" — to keep its receptionist, who committed a felony? A judge could issue an order allowing that.
And, finally, after at least three years of good behavior, some felons would be able to ask a court for a certificate of rehabilitation. That certificate would show up every time that felon's criminal record is pulled. It can be revoked.
Michael Dougherty, state deputy attorney general overseeing the criminal-justice section, was the lone voice opposing the bill Monday. He said he supports the bill's intent but has concerns, the largest being whether the courts would be usurping the authority of regulatory agencies.
Steadman said the bill addresses those concerns. "This bill is about removing barriers," he told the committee. "It's not about guaranteeing outcomes."
No one is guaranteed a job. No one is guaranteed housing. What the bill is is a start. It offers the convicted something they're not getting now: a shot.
"The concept of redemption or reformation of character is not reserved just for those people who didn't get caught," Michael Sweig, founder of the Institute for People with Criminal Records, told the committee.
Why again should I care, you may be asking. Because last year, 23,820 Coloradans were convicted of a felony, and 46,915 were convicted of a misdemeanor. Because we shoot ourselves in the foot by denying people a chance to re-enter and contribute to society when they leave prison. Because it's the smart economic thing to do. Because it's the right thing to do.
Speaking of right, this is not a right-left political issue. The committee consists of four Democrats and three Republicans. All voted in favor. The bill heads today to the Finance Committee.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
The Denver Post