Marion Barry, Ex-offenders and the Human Rights Bill of 1977

[Dwayne Betts]

You can't live in DC and not be impressed, on some level, by Councilman Marion Barry's political staying power. And if you asked about the source of that power, you would probably get ten different answers from ten different people. Earlier today I got a glimpse of how Barry maintains his relevancy. Barry is introducing a bill to have the Human Rights Act of 1977 amended to afford protection to ex-offenders. Let me say that again slower - Barry is introducing a bill to amend the Human Rights Act of 1977 so that it affords protection to ex-offenders.

If passed, the amended bill will in part read:

It is the intent of the Council of the District of Columbia, in enacting this chapter, to secure an end in the 

District of Columbia to discrimination for any reason other than that of individual merit, including, but not 

limited to, discrimination by reason of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal 

appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression familial status, family responsibilities, 

matriculation, political affiliation, genetic information, disability, source of income, arrest record, or conviction record and, status as a victim of an intrafamily offense, and place of residence or business. 

Barry's full bill is here:

Politically, this is a good move for Barry. It makes it look like he's ahead of the curve, but really he just hears a train that's already coming. Providing protection for ex-offenders guarantees nothing anyway.  The important work of the legislation, if it passes, will be to create an atmosphere where someone who has been to prison can walk into a room without feeling the need to confess to his crimes again and again.

A few months ago I spoke at an ABA conference about this issue, and next month I'll be on a ABA panel moderated by Charles Ogletree about the long lasting ramifications of a felony conviction. The first time I spoke before the ABA's council it was specifically to try to get them to take a stance against the practice of law schools and universities to ask about felony convictions. These schools often ask about arrests and juvenile adjudications. Ultimately, there was a reluctance to take a stance at that time - there were issues with how to protect public safety, etc. But what I realized was that most people think that if it comes down to someone with a felony not getting into school - despite not being a threat and being a good student - if that's the price to pay for people to feel comfortable, than that's just the price.

The amending bill still maintains that employers have the right to deny employment because of a felony conviction if there is a "rational relationship" between the arrest or conviction record and the job. This makes absolute sense. The thing is that if employers and universities have to think about the existence of a rational relationship, they will be less inclined to discriminate just on the basis of a checked box.

Barry's bill is important because it is the kind of stance that ex-offenders cannot make on their own. Right now, any university or employer can deny you a job or deny you admittance to a school without a hearing, without a valid reason. They can deny you and pretend that it's based on something other than your felony - or they can say it's because of your felony. Of all the collateral consequences that come with a prison sentence this shutting off of opportunity is the most dangerous. At the end of the day, I feel like, no matter his reasons, Barry's proposed amendment is an acknowledgement that society works better when all the members who can contribute are given the opportunity.