Slimantics: Hire a felon?

April 2, 2013 10:19:30 AM

Slim Smith - ssmith@cdispatch.com

 

Tonight, the Columbus City Council will consider a proposal to amend its hiring policies as they apply to people with felony convictions. 

 

This comes in the wake of enforcement guidelines issued recently by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that warned employers that making employment decisions based solely on a candidate's criminal history could be considered discrimination. 

 

I will pause here for a moment to permit the law-and-order types among you to leave the room, go outside and howl for a while.  

 

Yes, I realize some of you are not going to take this particularly well. 

 

Why shouldn't an employer consider a candidate's criminal history, you are inclined to ask. After all, if you want a job, maybe you shouldn't have committed a felony in the first place. 

 

I certainly understand that position well enough. Lord knows I ran into that attitude plenty during the past six years. 

 

As many of you know, I am a convicted felon. In fact, today is the anniversary. On April 2, 2007, I was convicted of aggravated DUI, which is a Class 4 felony in Arizona. What Class 4 means is that if I live to be 100, I'll still be a felon. 

 

For that offense, I served four months in state prison, paid $8,000 in fines and fees, served two years on probation and lost my driver's privileges for three years. Although many of the conditions made my life pretty miserable, I was careful never to complain about it, though. I understood: You do the crime, you suffer the consequences.  

 

What did trouble me is that my felony conviction disqualified me for any number of jobs as I began the long, difficult, lonely journey toward rebuilding my life.  

 

On one level, I understood why employers chose not to hire me. Let's face it: If you have three candidates, one of whom is a convicted felon and all other things equal, I'd probably go with one of the candidates that didn't wear that Scarlett Letter "F." In other instances, however, I was the best candidate for the job, based on skills and experiences. In those instances, I did feel as though I was being treated unfairly. 

 

About a year ago, I was given a chance that I never thought I would have -- an opportunity to return to my chosen profession. I don't ever want to take that second chance for granted. I kind of like to think that the jury is out on my case every day. It is a powerful, motivating force for me to do well, both in my personal and professional life. 

 

I do not believe there is anything particularly exceptional about my case. Untold numbers of men and women choose not to be defined by their worst moment. Many go on to do great and wonderful things when given the opportunity. 

 

Clearly, employment decisions about whether to hire a felon should take many factors into consideration. What is the job? What is the felony? It would be foolish to suggest that a convicted sex offender be considered for a job working with children, for example. Likewise, a convicted embezzler shouldn't work in a job that involves handling money. But aside from those cases, I think it's wise not to dismiss a candidate solely on the basis of criminal background. 

 

The EEOC's policy is a good one for the employer. It is good for the community, too, and for one very important reason: There is nothing more potentially dangerous than a felon who can't find a job.  

 

All felonies should not carry life sentences. We reserve that for the most serious offenses. Yet denying a person an opportunity to work is a life sentence in another sense. It's like telling somebody to drive a nail and then not giving him a hammer. To build a life, you need some tools. A job is the most important tool of all. 

 

So knee-jerk moral outrage aside, the city is wise to amend its policies to comply with the EEOC guidelines, not just for legal reasons but for the sake of human decency and the common good.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.