Law would create Cert. of Restoration to help ex-offenders fight employment, housing discrimination
Marquez Taylor, 20, was released from juvenile detention in 2011 after serving 16 weeks for a robbery he committed as a teenager.
His record has followed him ever since.
Taylor applied for dozens jobs in information technology and received several offers, which were rescinded after a background check revealed his conviction.
He finally found work at Year Up, a nonprofit organization that helps teens and young adults, including those who have criminal records, get IT training and internships.
He’s enrolled at Seattle Central Community College, studying to become a network designer.
He said he’s always wondering when his record will catch up with him again. Even though he completed a legal process to have his underage conviction removed from legal records, background check companies can find juvenile records anyway, and this could cost him employment and housing.
The punishment keeps coming, Taylor said, even as his conviction recedes into the past.
“We should have to do our time and pay our restitution,” Taylor said. “Our debt to society shouldn’t last a lifetime.”
Legislators in Olympia are considering a new law that would allow people like Taylor to move on with their lives. The law would create a certificate that people with criminal records could receive from a judge to show that they’ve done their time and are unlikely to offend again.
The Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity would allow people to apply for state licenses currently unavailable to anyone with a criminal history. The document could also lend credibility to ex-offenders.
“We’re hoping that landlords and employers would be more likely to rent to them or hire them,” said Merf Ehman, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who is advocating for the bill in Olympia.
Thousands of laws restrict the rights of people with criminal records. According to the American Bar Association, there are 40,000 state and federal statutes that impose consequences on those who have been convicted of a crime. These include access to legal benefits, subsidized housing and, perhaps most critically, state employment licenses.
“There’s your criminal sentence, but then there’s this secondary sentence that’s a lot harder to know the full impact of until you live through it,” said David Mace, an attorney who helps
clients of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.
Washington state issues employment licenses for hundreds of jobs, including alcohol server, barber, cosmetologist, commercial fisher, healthcare worker and drug counselor. Many licenses require applicants to complete training and education before applying.
For people with criminal records, the process of applying for a license is a gamble. They have to complete education and training before applying for licenses, but even those who otherwise qualify for a license stand to be denied anyway due to criminal records. Applicants can appeal the state’s decision, but few people bother to do so.
To qualify for a Certificate of Restoration, applicants are required to wait one to three years after their sentence or jail time, depending on whether they have a misdemeanor or felony. They must be free of any new charges or convictions. They also are required to pay any court fines or restitution or have a payment plan and have made nine payments over the prior 12 months or provide a good reason for the missed payments.
People who have been convicted of a sex offense are not be eligible.
The court can also consider letters and support from other people, including clergy, drug counselors, mental health providers and probation officers. Applicants can present school transcripts, training certificates and diplomas to support their case.
Ten other states have passed similar laws, including New York, which has had a certificate program in place for 40 years.
Mace acknowledged that although the certificate could improve employment opportunities for some ex-offenders, it would do nothing to eliminate the thousands of other legal barriers that prevent people from finding housing and employment.
“It’s a partial solution,” Mace said. “It’s not everything.”
Vanessa Hernandez lawyer of the ACLU of Washington said the certificate could offer ex-offenders some recourse but shouldn’t replace a larger discussion about how society continues to punish people for their criminal records even after they’ve served their time.
“I think we’re at the very beginning of that conversation,” she said.