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December 17, 2019

Marylanders in Congress are pushing to help an influx of ex-prisoners find new life after incarceration

Credit: The Baltimore Sun, Jeff Barker

Maryland lawmakers in Washington are promoting a flurry of bills they say are critical to ease the return to society of hundreds of thousands of prisoners a year and prevent them from slipping back into crime.

They say legislation Congress passed last year, the First Step Act, to help undo years of mass incarceration is just that: a beginning. It gives judges greater latitude to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug violations and bolsters rehabilitation programs.

Since then, Maryland representatives have introduced measures that would help many people with criminal histories gain better access to education assistance, get loans to start businesses and avoid being refused a job solely because they once committed a crime.

In politically polarized Washington, criminal justice reform is a rare social issue attracting support from Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s looked at now not just as a progressive idea, but as a mainstream idea,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

Helping former inmates overcome stigma attached to their past was a priority of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who said people reentering society need “a fair chance at truly achieving the American dream.”

Cummings was a chief sponsor of another bill, the bipartisan Fair Chance Act, that would forbid the federal government from asking job applicants to divulge any criminal history until near the end of the hiring process. Companies doing business with the government would also be subject to the requirement for jobs tied to federal contracts. Such bills are often called “ban the box” legislation because they seek to prohibit a box on an application that job seekers check if they have a criminal history.

The House passed the measure in July after it was added to a military defense package. A House-Senate conference committee recently agreed to retain the ban the box section in a version of the legislation that has passed the House and now must be voted on by the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has not made his position on ban the box publicly known. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is a chief Senate sponsor.

The legislation is similar to a Maryland bill that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed May 24 after the House of Delegates and state Senate passed it by large margins. It would prohibit Maryland businesses from eliciting criminal background information until an applicant’s first in-person interview.

Hogan said in his veto message that the measure “would cause hiring delays and waste time and resources.” By the time an employer learned a potential employee had a criminal background, Hogan wrote, “alternative candidates may no longer be available for hire.”

“When they [employers] ask about criminal history, the chances of getting a job plummet.” – U.S. Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat and a co-sponsor of the Ban the Box legislation in Washington

U.S. Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat and a co-sponsor of the ban the box legislation in Washington, called Hogan’s veto “unfortunate” and said he knows from his own business that such laws are needed.

“When they [employers] ask about criminal history, the chances of getting a job plummet,” said Trone, co-owner of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More.

In recent years, Trone said his company has hired about 500 formerly incarcerated workers for tasks such as moving products into stores and stocking shelves. He said some have become managers and there has been “not one issue of anything involving safety.” The business employs more than 7,000 people overall.

Trone is also promoting a bill — it hasn’t been voted on — to repeal a ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. The federal Pell Grants are for students with financial need who are seeking postsecondary education.

“I’ve seen the impact an education has on incarcerated students firsthand,” said Trone, whose district stretches from Montgomery County through Western Maryland. “It changes lives and improves our communities.”

In April, Cardin introduced a bill under which the U.S. Small Business Administration would award grants to organizations helping former inmates to develop businesses. The bill was referred to the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, of which Cardin is the top-ranking Democrat.

In September, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland sponsored a bill to lift a ban on students with felony drug convictions receiving the American Opportunity Tax Credit to help pay for college.

“It doesn’t serve anyone’s interest to punish people after they get out of prison,” the Democrat said.

Van Hollen’s bill, like many of the criminal justice measures, has attracted at least some bipartisan support. The measure is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

In December 2018, Republican President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which was aimed at minimizing warehousing of prisoners and making it easier for inmates to succeed once released.

Supporters of the act included more than a dozen Baltimore Ravens players and executives who wrote to Senate leaders in the fall of 2018, saying the measure would bring “much-needed change” to the justice system.

The bill had the distinction of aligning NFL players on an issue with Trump — who sharply criticized professional football players who knelt during the national anthem during the 2017 season to protest racial inequality and police brutality. At least one Raven signing the letter — linebacker C.J. Mosley, now with the New York Jets — had previously locked arms with Baltimore teammates and knelt before a game.

More than 650,000 people are released each year from prisons in the U.S., according to the Justice Department. But some 70 million Americans have arrest or conviction histories, according to the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Cummings, who chaired the committee before he died in October, often said African Americans were particularly susceptible to enduring job discrimination after being incarcerated.

Owing partly to a strong economy, increasing numbers of businesses say they now include people with criminal records in their recruiting and hiring pools.

The Maryland Chamber Foundation — the research and educational arm of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce — has been “exploring ways to reduce recidivism through employment,” the chamber said in a statement.

But the chamber itself, which has more than 4,500 member businesses, said it did not support the state ban the box legislation. It objected to a provision that would allow local jurisdictions to enact their own limits on criminal background screening.

“The chamber did oppose this bill, but not because of its intent,” the organization said in a statement. It was because of the local government provision, “which created concern within the business community, especially for those that conduct business in more than one jurisdiction,” the chamber said.

Hogan, in his veto message, said the provision could result in a “patchwork” of different requirements across the state.

The governor also expressed concern that the legislation would apply the same screening limitations for violent offenses as for misdemeanors, potentially creating safety issues.

Hogan’s spokesman had no comment on the state bill — nor on the Fair Chance Act in Congress — beyond the governor’s veto message. The White House said it has not yet released a policy statement on the federal legislation.

Maryland advocates plan to override Hogan’s veto in the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 8. “We have the votes and we will do it,” said Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and the Senate sponsor.

In 2014, Baltimore enacted a ban the box measure, restricting employers in the city with 10 or more workers from asking a candidate about a criminal record until a conditional job offer is made.

“My husband introduced ‘ban the box’ in the city of Baltimore years ago,” said State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat. “If individuals can’t get a job, they can’t get housing, they can’t get financial aid. What other recourse are they going to come out and do but to go back out in the streets?” Mosby’s husband, Nick Mosby, was a Democratic councilman at the time; he is now running for council president.

Maryland did enact ban the box legislation for state government jobs in 2013.

“People with felony records are almost the last group of people” against whom businesses are not only allowed to discriminate, they are “encouraged” to do so, said Baltimore criminal justice advocate Kimberly Haven, who was convicted on a theft charge years ago.

“I know only too well the impact having a criminal record has on finding employment,” she said. “In fact, having a criminal record is tantamount to having a life sentence. It is beyond demoralizing when you know that an employer or hiring manager is going to throw away your application or resume.”

Sean Howard, a Baltimore auto mechanic instructor who served 21 years in prison, said he knows he will be regarded differently — often with suspicion — than most people. He said he was convicted of homicide, assault and a handgun charge when he was 15.

“You are an ex-felon, so you are going to be shunned a lot. And for a lot of us, it’s going to be challenging,” he said.

Howard, 37, teaches at Vehicles for Change, which runs an automotive training program for former inmates.

He said he favors ban the box bills and other legislation that helps ex-prisoners get jobs and housing because that “gives an ex-offender an opportunity for a second chance.”

Howard said he feels deep remorse for the crime he committed as a youth, “but judge me for the work I’m doing and my character now.”