By Ron Jones

In the first of what will likely become a series of workshops, The Workers’ Center of the Southern Tier hosted a training session on November 18th for all members entitled “Barriers to Employment.”

Held at the United Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, Aimee Jennings, an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Legal Assistance of Western NY in Ithaca, laid out potential solutions for the dilemma many NY citizens face in the employment and housing markets upon release from jail or prison.

Among the many examples she cited perhaps, one of the most important, revolved around a single mom with four kids trying to get reestablished in society after a conviction as a minor participant in an insurance fraud scheme that netted her $2,500 some 10 plus years earlier. The federal judge in Brooklyn who heard the case had sentenced her to five years of probation for this incident and reconsidered the sentence upon appeal a few years later. Calling her a minor participant in a non-violent crime, Judge Gleeson decried the “dramatic adverse impact” the woman’s conviction has had on her ability to get a job to support her four children. “There is no justification for continuing to impose this disability on her,” Judge Gleeson wrote. “I sentenced her to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.”

This move was significant because there is no federal law that allows for expungement – the permanent sealing of a criminal record to the general public. In fact, it appears to be the first time that a federal judge has expunged a conviction for reason. It should not be the last.

Some 70 million people in the United States (more than ¼ of all adults) have a criminal record and as a result, they are subject to tens of thousands of state and federal laws and rules that restrict or prohibit their access to the most basic of rights and privileges – from voting, employment and housing to business licensing and parental rights.

This woman had been hired repeatedly for social work or health-care jobs only to be fired after a background check turned up the conviction. The judge wrote, it is “random and senseless” that her “ancient and minor offense should disqualify her from work as a home health aide.”

But, she went on, expungement is not a cure-all. The vast majority of employers do checks -often from error-strewn databases that often fail to delete sealed records.

A better and increasingly popular approach is a “certificate of rehabilitation,” which state judges issue as a way of removing certain restrictions and encouraging employers to take a chance on someone despite his/her record. Full pardons are another way to remove barrier but they are rare at both state and federal level.

Ms. Jennings went on, that although there are many other examples and that progress is being made in this arena, in housing as well employment, we have a long was to go. People with convictions in their past are advised to seek counsel and help to remove these barriers from their record in order to get on with their life. Staff at their local Workers’ Center can help.




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