D.C. Council member Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, thinks that ex-convicts should be able to find jobs when they get out of jail so they can become self-supporting, law-abiding citizens. So does The Washington Examiner. In D.C., where three-quarters of all black men reportedly spend at least some time incarcerated, rehabilitation is not only a noble but a necessary goal.
But as usual, the former mayor took things too far when he proposed legislation to bar businesses from inquiring about a potential hire's criminal background until after a job offer has been made. Barry also wanted to give "returning citizens" -- his euphemism for convicted murderers, robbers, rapists and drug dealers -- new legal rights allowing them to accuse employers of hiring discrimination if they didn't get the job.
D.C.'s Human Rights Act is one of the most comprehensive in the nation, barring discrimination based on "race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, familial status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, disability, source of income, and place of residence or business." Indeed, a criminal record is one of the few categories that's not on the list. But even the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington opposes adding it, correctly noting that crime is a voluntary act.
Barry also crossed the line in his verbal attacks of those who opposed his bill, unfairly comparing Council Chairman Phil Mendelson with Southern segregationists and calling DC Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang a traitor to her race. Lang has been a much better role model than Barry, whose ethical lapses include tax evasion and a widely publicized conviction for possessing crack cocaine while he was mayor -- an incident that still embarrasses the city.
A 2009 study cited by the Heritage Foundation found that "when employers do criminal background checks during hiring, the hiring rates of black men increase." The implication is that employers, if deprived of the ability to check criminal history, will merely assume the worst based on statistical probability, and it's nearly impossible to prove they did anything wrong. Barry's measure, then, is most likely to harm black men without criminal records when they seek jobs.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Council wisely defeated Barry's proposal, passing an alternative offered by Mendelson that will implement a "certificate of good standing" for ex-convicts that falls short of making them a protected class. And while D.C. employers should be encouraged to take the considerable risk of hiring ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society, it should always be an informed -- and voluntary -- decision.