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San Francisco may revamp background screening processes for ex-cons

Jul 26, 2011 Matt Roesly

Former convicts often face bias and stereotypes when trying to re-integrate into society after serving their time in prison. To help protect these individuals against discrimination during housing and employment checks, San Frasncisco's Human Rights Commission may be enacting new regulations on when background checks should be considered permissible. According to the American Bar Association Journal, ex-cons are currently protected from discrimination when applying for jobs in San Francisco and in houses operated by the San Francisco Housing Authority. However, private companies and landlords can easily be biased and deny a former convict a position or housing. The new proposal would extend the ban on bias to private landlords and employers, the source reported. Sex offenders and those previously convicted of committing violent acts would not be offered protection, however. San Francisco already maintains a ban on bias towards minority groups and lesbians and gays, according to the Associated Press. However, some critics find this extension to be going too far. "Proponents say that with California under orders to reduce its prison population such a plan is necessary to help former inmates reintegrate and reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses," the source reported. "But others say that business owners have a right to be cautious in order to protect themselves and others." Similar acts have already been adopted by several states and in more than 20 local governments nationally, the source noted. At least four states, including New York, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have jumped on board with similar efforts. Public Defender Jeff Adachi said many firms utilize background screening policies and eliminate candidates based on their criminal history. He said this leads to a "revolving door," in which ex-cons are released from custody, unable to secure homes and jobs and, ultimately, end up back in jail. The Associated Press noted that approximately 7 million people in California have misdemeanor or felony arrests or convictions on their record. Additionally, the state has been federally ordered to reduce the population of its prisons by more than 20 percent in just two years. It aims to do this by extending the bias ban to employers and housing officials. Still landlords and the San Francisco Apartment Association remain on edge about the move. "The concern with this proposal is that you rent to a person because you have to, and then that person ends up assaulting a tenant or a person in the building," Wasserman said. "Owners should be able to decide whether the person poses a risk to tenants." According to supporters of the bias ban, barriers are often unnecessarily harsh. For example, people with convictions that are 10- to 30-years-old are often unable to secure employment due to strict background checks.