Agencies urged to hire ex-offenders

The government should do more to assure individuals with criminal records that they are not barred from certain types of federal employment, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, members of Congress said hiring ex-offenders could help many of them as they re-enter communities and also help government as it addresses impending staff shortages.

"The fact is that we as a country and employer continue to fall short in our attempt to eliminate barriers to employment for ex-offenders," said subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. "Aside from select branches of the U.S. military, there is very little evidence that the federal government is availing itself as a legitimate source of employment for ex-offenders."

President Bush in April signed into law a bill sponsored by Davis that aims to help states and localities better address the needs of individuals re-entering society from the criminal justice system. The law reauthorizes a Justice Department grant program for offenders returning to communities and authorizes $320 million in grants for states and localities through fiscal 2010.

Davis pointed to the Boston and Chicago city governments as models for hiring ex-offenders, specifically their practice of informing individuals that a conviction did not bar them from employment with the city.

Individuals with criminal histories often are barred from employment or obtaining occupational licenses, even if their conviction was not related to the profession, said Roberta Myers-Peeples, director of the National Helping Individuals With Criminal Records Re-Enter through Employment Network. She said ex-offenders often have the proper education and skills for a job, but are not considered because they must indicate on job applications that they have a criminal record.

"They're stopped when they check the box that they have a criminal record," said Myers-Peeples. "Remove the criminal record box up front, then later in the hiring process the criminal record is checked and the employer can determine whether there is a risk."

Myers-Peeples said she does not know of any ex-offenders who currently work for a federal agency. At the U.S. Postal Service in particular, she said, many who indicated they had a criminal record could "not get through the front door."

But Nancy Kichak, associate director for strategic human resources policy at the Office of Personnel Management, said none of the job postings on USAJobs.com asks applicants about their criminal history. She said the question could be asked, however, for certain federal positions not posted on the Web site.

"We believe current human capital practices provide adequate opportunities for employment and that no special appointing authorities for hiring ex-offenders in the federal government are needed," she said.

Thomas Bostick, a major general in charge of the Army Recruiting Command, said the service has a solid process for screening applicants who have been charged with felonies and other offenses, and it grants waivers to individuals who do not pose any particular threat. "For applicants who make a mistake earlier in life and want to serve their country, we examine their performance at school, at work, in their personal life and in the community," he said.

Bostick said a 2003-2006 study comparing the performance of soldiers without waivers to the 17,000 soldiers admitted with conduct waivers found that those with the waivers re-enlisted at a higher rate, advanced to the rank of sergeant faster and had a higher ratio of valorous awards. He said the Army is evaluating whether soldiers with waivers perform on par with other recruits.

Myers-Peeples argued that while agencies should check criminal records before making final hiring decisions, they also should consider the length of time since the criminal activity and whether the applicant completed a rehabilitation program.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., probed whether OPM had conducted any surveys to determine which federal agencies had applications that asked about criminal records. Kichak said no survey currently exists, but pledged to ask agencies about their practices and whether questions were relevant to specific federal jobs.

"We can't deal with legislation without knowing," Norton said. "It would be foolhardy for us to legislate in the blind and tell federal agencies what to do."

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