In The News
Felons bill a classic case of fear, power run amuck
By Dominque Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted Dec. 5, 2011
It's one thing to reward your corporate buddies with "incentives" that give them money for not creating jobs, or to scare the bejesus out of ordinary citizens who don't agree with your social policies by forcing obedience anyway.
It's another when your power goes loopy inhumane and even sacrilegious, drawing the outrage and disbelief of ethics experts and religious leaders of all denominations and all political persuasions.
That is SB 207, the so-called felons law, approved by the lopsided GOP in the Assembly and heading to do the same in the Senate unless sidetracked by negotiations, common sense and growing community outrage from all quarters.
SB 207 would erase an accepted state standard - that no employer would face an employment discrimination suit for refusing to let a former felon fill a job related to his or her original offense.
But SB 207 would change that law (and forbid any local government to modify it). An employer could refuse to hire or could even go back in time to terminate ANY former felon not pardoned by a governor "whether or not the circumstances of the felony substantially relate to the circumstances of the particular job."
In other words, ex-felons can be rejected for any reason or any job without fear of legal state action simply because of the one-time F next to their application, even if it happened 30 years ago, even if it bears no relationship to the job at hand.
There was a time in our society when prison was the avenue an angry society to solve every drug habit, policy protest gone haywire, beating at the ball park, the selling of little packets of powder or weed to your friends, and on and on. When "just say no" didn't work, we threw them all in prison and hang the expense.
Recent federal statistics indicate that 40% of state felony convictions still target those under age 30. Yet few felony convictions are for violent crimes like murder, rape or gun play. Most were drug-related or property-related, which can be burglary but also can be bouncing a check or stealing from a store.
SB 207 lets any employer rely on this dead hand of the past to park conscience and human judgment on the shelf. It's also an invitation to nepotism and a temptation to firing -- turning upside down the American concept of work as rehabilitating. History demonstrates that our worst instincts come out in times of economic hardship - and that also applies to the bosses, who now have a legal excuse to return to the medieval.
So pity the struggling youth who got in trouble and wants to straighten out after doing his time. Forget the reformed offender anxious to be a good parent and support a family. Neither would get a foot in the closing door if you examine the nuances of this bill. A longtime good employee who did something illegal long ago now has to worry if his boss will find an excuse to let him go and later hire that lazy cousin.
In the US, one in four - some 65 million - have criminal records. Many did not have the good lawyer, family connections and sympathetic suburban judges that allowed them to skate on misdemeanors for charges that in the big city led to felony convictions.
Few of those lucky, few who came out of prison long ago and few who are coming out tomorrow are bad to the bone and unredeemable for society. Only someone with hardening of the intellectual and moral arteries could think like that or spout platitudes that, since it remains against federal statute to deny employment just because of previous arrest or conviction, state mandated bigotry would do no harm. It is a new amoral vision of state rights.
One key sponsor, Sen. Alberta Darling, even defended the bill by calling ex-felons a “protected” privileged class of workers, like the police officers and fire fighters who retain full bargaining rights under Walker rule. In her outrageous view felons can at will sue those sweet nice business owners if they dare not hire them for normal stuff like lack of ability or skill, simply by hollering employment discrimination.
Normally you need evidence to accuse people like this, but these are just ex-felons. No proof exists in court and administrative documents, but fear runs rampant among risk-averse business types. Discriminating just because of arrest or conviction is so high a federal legal bar that an employer almost has to say, "Get lost, con!" to incur a penalty. The SB 207 solution to a non-existent problem -- sound familiar? -- is keep ex-felons from applying in the first place.
Wisconsin has some 60,000 of the 12 million former felons in the US, many white, many not. The folks propagating the myth of organized and probably unionized ex-felons plotting to steal good Republican corporate money by colluding with shyster lawyers - it would be a comedic vision of the world were it not so insulting.
The real reason for this bill is wink and nod -- that sly game that screams of political corruption and allows lawmakers to secretly wink to their buddies that the rules aren’t aimed at affluent friends but at the powerless outsiders.
Business owners and those with inherited wealth and clout know how many of their own kind (some nice people, I'm sure) got caught up in the conviction game over the years of drug and white collar crimes and couldn't escape the felony label even with the breaks in lawyers and venues.
If SB 207 passes, they can selectively hire those they know while rejecting without fear of lawsuit the outsider with the beard, the tattoo or the peculiar skin tone.
The bias may seem obvious, but when you’re in power how can anyone (wink wink nod nod) accuse you of acting like a criminal?
A version of this editorial appeared Dec. 5 in ACTION! – a special newspaper of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council devoted to the reasons to recall the governor. A PDF version is available in the Take Action section of milwaukelabor.org. 20,000 copies of the four-page newspaper are being hand-distributed.