September 30, 2011

An Unnecessary Roadblock

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

A few years ago, I had a very humbling experience with a constituent of mine. He walked into my office after being released from prison earlier that day. After he explained that he did not know where else to go, he sat down, looking rather beleaguered and frustrated. He explained that upon leaving the institution, correction officials gave him a bus ticket to Milwaukee and sent him on his way. There was no discussion about housing. There was no discussion about employment or how he would take care of himself.

This session, Representative Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) and Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) are introducing a bill that would allow employers to refuse to employ, to bar, or to terminate any individual who has been convicted of a felony. Currently, it is illegal to discriminate in employment based on a conviction record.

When I served as chairwoman of the Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, Insurance Campaign Finance Reform & Housing, there were attempts to pass similar bills; this version is far more extreme. To combat these efforts, I introduced a bill that prohibited the consideration of any conviction record for a job applicant before the interview. Although it did not pass, my rationale for opposing this new bill is the same as my rationale for introducing my bill back in 2009.

Reentry is not an easy process. After being released from institutions, people are met with multiple obstacles including discrimination from employers. There are programs and limited job opportunities for offenders, but the major portion of employment is closed to this segment of the population. Employment is not only a requirement for supervision, but also the single largest factor that helps an offender maintain successful reintegration. To be clear, I am not suggesting that employers be denied the opportunity to inquire about convictions; I am suggesting the employers be prohibited from inquiring about conviction or discriminating on the basis of conviction before applicants are scheduled for an interview.

Employment is one of the most important aspects of successful reentry, and our state has a vested interest in assisting former offenders in returning to the community in a manner that will help them succeed. Keeping offenders employed will keep recidivism rates low and save taxpayer money. Under the pretext of preventing dubious lawsuits against employers, Rep. Kleefisch and Sen. Darling will introduce legislation that will cost our state money and do nothing to improve public welfare and safety.

Just as I stopped these bills when they came before my committee, the GOP must do the same. Our current law gives reentering offenders the opportunity to explain their circumstances or to describe their efforts at rehabilitation. Without that opportunity, successful reentry is impossible.