While attending an event this weekend, a long time friend and business owner approached me and said “I cannot understand why you people (viz: Seattle City Councilmembers) insist on passing laws that make it harder to do business in this city.”
He was referring to the Job Assistance Legislation, C.B. 117796, which passed out of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee last week, and upon which I voted “yes” today.
This bill has been years in the making. It seemed like most people who have engaged in the drafting have supported the ultimate objectives, but the “how” is what caused revision after revision. It has morphed and changed and been tweaked in hopes that consensus could be reached.
Here’s why I support the amended version that was before us today: because I want to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, make our community safer, and support people who want to be productive members of our community. I believe this legislation will help businesses in the long run, not hurt them.
According to a recent King County’s Offender Reentry Plan, over one hundred individuals return to our community from jails every day. Without a significant change in circumstances, these individuals can face alienation, poverty, unemployment, homelessness or unstable housing, mental illness and/or chemical dependency – many of the same problems that contributed to their entering the jail system in the first place.
When a person is convicted of a crime and has paid the debt by serving jail time, the reality is that the stigma of prison often haunts him for years –if not decades or a lifetime. The situation is worse for young men of color who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
In my experience, most able people want to work and to feel productive. And we, as a community, want people to meet their potential and feel self-worth. To help former felons become productive members of our community, they must receive skills-training while in jail, and upon release to receive support from the government to make housing, employment, and needed services available. This isn’t a new approach that Seattle is considering alone. Felon re-entry programs are being created nation-wide.
King County’s Re-entry Plan, which I support and am working on with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, has six identified goals that will make re-entry to the community possible. These goals are
1. Improve the housing status of individuals leaving jail.
2. Improve rates of self-sufficient employment for individuals leaving jail.
3. Provide access to effective mental health, chemical dependency, and primary care treatment services for inmates before and after their release from jail
4. Sustain offenders’ access to government assistance programs. Improve case management systems.
5. Increase reentering offenders’ connections to family and community.
6. Improve offender access to basic resources and services in the community after release.
As this report (link) notes, successful re-entry “requires that the released individual obtain stable housing and employment; receives services for and works toward mental health and/or chemical dependency recovery; and chooses not to engage in criminal behavior.”
The Job Assistance Legislation is designed to address Goal #2 above: to help those who want to become law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying citizens to obtain self-sufficient employment. We in our community should WANT the formerly-incarcerated person to succeed, to lead a crime-free life. Here’s where employers come in.
The Job Assistance Legislation allows employers to make a rational hiring decision based on all information about qualified employees. Timing of asking questions about past criminal records is key.
With more employers relying on criminal background checks or some form of credit check to initially screen candidates, many would-be workers never get an interview.
The “Ban the Box” approach means not asking a question about criminal histories until an applicant is granted an interview or made a conditional job offer. This gives an applicant with a criminal record an opportunity to meet an employer face-to-face and explain why he/she would be a good employee. This is how the City of Seattle operates. This is the process used when hiring my staff. And this is the process I think is fair.
Without the personal interview, some feel there’s little chance of employment. This legislation levels the playing field and gives people that chance. And who can argue against giving someone a chance?
As this legislation has been written and amended, I have worked with both members of the business community and those who advocate on behalf of released felons to find an acceptable middle ground. I want businesses to be part of the solution: we need them to be part of the solution, and that is why I have worked to address their worries about this legislation. Admittedly I was unable to get the attorney’s fees amendment I wanted, but we did make progress and I intend to follow up and examine how fines and fees are assessed by our Hearing Examiners on similar matters.
We have made changes to reassure private employers they are not in this alone. Far from it. To be effective, a re-entry program must be embraced by the community and coordinated with jails, courts, law enforcement, social services, stakeholders, public defenders, tenant advocacy groups – everyone interested. We all must agree to work with those who have been released from jail and WANT to work. This re-entry program, of which the Job Assistance Legislation is just one component, will provide the framework for success.
If we expect to keep our city strong and growing, we must make a renewed commitment to try something new – to give the formerly incarcerated a second chance – and successfully reintegrate them back into society. This is a city for all, and opportunities should be available to everyone.
I am pleased to be part of this effort, and give kudos to Councilmember Bruce Harrell for initiating the legislation, and thanks to my colleagues and those in our community who have brought the legislation this far.