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Testimony before the Rochester City Council regarding Opportunity to Compete Ordinance

Testimony of Kaelyn Rich on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union

May 13, 2014

My name is KaeLyn Rich. I am the director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The NYCLU, a state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization with eight offices and 50,000 members across the state. The NYCLU is devoted to the protection and enhancement of those fundamental rights and constitutional principles embodied in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. Central to this mission is our advocacy regarding fairness and freedom from discrimination.

The NYCLU strongly supports passing the Opportunity to Compete Ordinance to increase fair hiring practices, reduce recidivism, and allow all members of our community to meaningfully contribute to our local economy.

We cannot ignore that employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people disproportionately affects minorities, particularly black and Latino men. It is well-documented that there are enormous racial and ethnic disparities in New York’s prison population, particularly among those incarcerated for drug offenses. In Monroe County, a black person is 6.5 more times likely than their white counterpart to be arrested for marijuana possession. Securing gainful employment is a major barrier for the formerly incarcerated. When a person can find employment, they are much less likely to recidivate. In fact, one study found that just 8 percent of previously incarcerated people who were employed for a year committed another crime.

Yet, many people cannot find employment because they are screened out of the hiring process before their skills and qualifications are even evaluated through application questions asking about prior convictions. More often than not, the crime for which the person was convicted is not job related and bears no relationship to whether the person is ready, willing and able to satisfactorily perform the job duties. Yet, people with criminal convictions are 50 percent less likely to be called for a job interview compared to a identically qualified person . In Minneapolis, where a similar ordinance was passed in 2006, the rate of employment for people with past convictions skyrocketed from less than 6 percent to almost 60 percent in the first year.

In 1998, Hawaii became the first state to remove questions about convictions from employment forms in the public and private sectors statewide. Today, there are 11 states that have adopted similar policies: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Rhode Island. Nationwide, more than 60 cities and counties—including Buffalo and New York City—have taken the step of removing unfair barriers to employment in their hiring policies.

Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) endorsed removing questions about convictions from job applications as a best practice to align with the central tenets of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race. New York State Correction Law Article 23-A already prohibits discrimination against people with criminal convictions with exemptions for healthcare security guards, childcare, education licensing and Department of Education, and transportation and TSA jobs, as well as convictions directly related to a job. The Opportunity to Compete Ordinance would help bring employers into compliance with the New York State law and EEOC guidance, without removing the appropriate exemptions already in place.

With New York’s recidivism rate at a shameful 60 percent, solutions like the Opportunity to Compete Ordinance should be looked at as a comprehensive approach to dealing with the root causes of why some people commit criminal offenses in the first instance. When people with prior convictions can find work, they are more likely not to return to criminal activity for economic gain. When they are able to be with their families, become financially independent, and contribute to the local economy and community, they are more likely to take the opportunity to do so. When they are motivated to obtain job skills and an education, they are more likely to complete their parole or probation without incident. In sum, they are more likely to become law-abiding citizens again.

In furtherance of defending every person’s constitutionally protected rights and for strong public policy reasons, the NYCLU strongly urges the Rochester City Council to pass the Opportunity to Compete Ordinance, reaffirming our great city’s commitment to justice and fairness.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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