On November 30, in front of a packed crowd at the Garfield Community Center, three ex-felons, all mothers, talked in plain terms about being unemployed and homeless because of their criminal histories—and how that instability kept them from gaining custody of their children. "I have to fight twice as hard to stay near my daughter and support her," said Virginia Bromley, who has a record of drug charges. "It feels like I'll never stop being punished for what I did."

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The stumbling block for Bromley—and indeed anyone with a record—is that whenever she fills out a job or housing application in Seattle, she must check a box to declare a criminal record. The box sits empty for most people, who don't give it a second thought. But in broad strokes, many people who do check this box—whether they were busted for minor drug possession or convicted of robbery, have been back in society for decades or were released yesterday—don't make it past a basic background check for an interview.

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights wants to change that.

The office has partnered with the Seattle Human Rights Commission and Sojourner Place, which provides transitional housing for single women, to draft a new city law that would make it illegal to discriminate against people based solely on their arrest or conviction record, with a few exceptions (arson, fraud, and other convictions that could threaten the safety of employees or neighbors, for example). "Employers would still be able to ask about criminal backgrounds—arrests and convictions—but they wouldn't be able to use that in a discriminatory capacity," says Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. Nelson also wants that box removed, except for certain jobs and housing applications.

The Seattle Police Department supports changing the rules. "All the people who go to prison, with very small exceptions, they're coming back," said assistant police chief Mike Sanford at the November meeting. "How we reintegrate them into the community is a key to how successful we are as a society."

But the idea has landlords—like Julie Johnson, president of the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound—worried about property values and public safety. Even though two-thirds of ex-felons in the U.S. have served time for nonviolent crimes (drug offenses account for 37 percent and property crimes for 25 percent of total crimes), Johnson says that statistics aren't reassuring to landlords. "You don't want to rent to people with drug convictions. If they turn out to be growing [pot], or have a meth lab, federally, they could seize the property," she says. The legislation is akin to "making landlords do the job that the state should really be doing," she says, like providing transitional housing and employment to ex-felons. Johnson says property owners should be able to decide whom they rent to.

But Nelson counters, "We want people to more carefully consider how and when criminal background checks make sense. From a business perspective, having ex-offenders employed and in stable housing will lower recidivism rates... and improve public safety."

Nelson intends to present a final draft of the bill in January to Mayor Mike McGinn, who could transmit it to the city council by March.

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