Whenever you fill out a job or housing application in Seattle, you must check a box if you've got an arrest or criminal conviction on your record. The box stands stands empty for most people, who don't give it a second thought. But in broad strokes, the people who check this box—whether they were in prison for low-level drug possession or a violent crime, whether they've been recently released or have been out for years—are denied housing and employment.
The box effectively ensures that society continues punishing ex-offenders for their crimes by denying them housing, an income, and stability when they need it the most, explained a panel of people last night, speaking to 100-plus residents at Garfield Community Center. This panel—led by the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the Seattle Office for Civil Rights—is determined to "ban the box" from all housing and employment forms in the city of Seattle. And they've got the backing of the Seattle Police Department to do so.
More after the jump.
Here's what the group's proposing:
The proposed law would make it illegal to discriminate against people in housing and employment based solely on an arrest or conviction record. The law would not apply to arrests or convictions that:
Are directly related to the applicant’s tenancy—for example, a conviction for arson. Create an unreasonable threat to the safety or welfare of employees, landlords, tenants or property. Involve jobs working with unsupervised children, vulnerable adults and law enforcement agencies. Directly relate to the job—for example, a conviction for embezzlement could exclude someone from being hired to handle money.
In brief, here's why it's necessary (.pdf): The vast majority of all felony defendants in the U.S. are living in extreme poverty when they're charged for a crime, roughly 2/3 of those people serve time for nonviolent crimes (drug offenses account for 37 percent and property crimes for 25 percent of total crimes), and when they get out of prison and can't get a job or a place to live, many re-offend. The overall rate of recidivism for men is 64.6 percent compared to 50.5 percent among women, according to a 2004 study by the WA Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
At the meeting, three women publicly addressed their struggles to find jobs and work after being released from prison. The larger issue, for them, is regaining custody of their kids. "I'm fighting so hard to stay near my daughter and be responsible for her," said an ex-offender named Ginny, "and I'm telling you there's no network in place to help."
"We can never arrest our way out of problems in society," said Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford at last night's discussion. "All the people who go to prison, with very small exceptions, they’re coming back. How we reintegrate them into the community is a key to how successful we are as a society. We invest in prisons, we invest in police—we invest in these things we know don’t work—and we don’t invest in the things we know will work."
Other cities have "banned the box" with regards to housing or employment; Seattle would be one of the first to tackle both issues at once.
But what was particularly striking about last night's meeting—aside from the dedicated support coming from SPD—was the overwhelming enthusiasm the audience had for this kind of legislation (typically, community meetings are overwhelmed by hysterical neighbors who shit hard boiled eggs of outrage every time someone proposes changing their residential makeup).
Now, all supporters of the legislation need is a plan. The problem is, they don't quite have one yet. At the meeting last night, Chris Stearns, Vice Chair for the Human Rights Commission, admitted that the group hasn't contacted city council members yet for their feedback or support. They don't have an idea of what—if any—the fiscal impacts of this legislation would be, and they're still figuring out how such an ordinance would be enforced.
Stearns said the group hoped to present a finalized draft of the ordinance to the mayor in January at the latest, and potentially introduce it to city council as legislation by March. "But right now, we're still in the planning stages," he said. "We need another public meeting like this one. We want feedback. We want to hear people's concerns."