Community debates bill to repeal discrimination protection for felons

Miller, testifying at the public hearingMiller, testifying at the public hearingWhen John Miller left his north-side Madison home the morning of Wednesday Oct. 12, his schedule was full—just as it has been since he was released from prison in January 2010.

Some responsibilities have changed for Miller in the past 21 months.  He has a job, sees his family regularly, and attends classes at Madison Area Technical College.  But certain facts remain: Miller can’t vote or own a firearm, and he must mark the box labeled ‘convicted felon’ if he ever completes another job application.

Miller went to sociology class Wednesday morning, and then to work, believing if that he worked hard and stayed positive, future employers might evaluate his skills and attributes instead of his criminal record. 

“I spent 14 years in prison.  And what I went through, I feel I been to hell and back.  But the path I was on, I just couldn’t continue to live that way…I said, look, you need to do the right thing.  If you do the right thing more people will help you.  You got to do what’s right, you got to focus, and you got to have a plan,” said Miller.

But late Wednesday morning, Miller received a phone call and learned that at 1p.m., his professional aspirations might clash with some state representatives’ commitment to proving that Wisconsin is open for business.

Miller—along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the State Bar of Wisconsin—was one of several voices of opposition at a committee hearing on Assembly Bill 286, a bill which would effectively strip convicted felons of current protections provided under Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act.

Under current law, employers are not allowed to refuse employment or to terminate an employee based solely on criminal history unless the nature of the crime directly relates to the circumstances of a job.  Convicted sex offenders may not be eligible to work with children; individuals with theft convictions may not work a cash till.

But some representatives feel the current law, which was adopted in 1977, places an undue burden on employers, and creates potential legal-grounds for individuals to sue companies if they are refused employment or if they are fired. 

Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, opened his testimony by citing the case of Gerald Turner, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1975, after he confessed to killing a nine-year-old Fond du Lac girl.  After Turner’s release from prison, Waste Management Inc. refused to hire Turner because of his crime.  Turner sued, and was awarded a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount.

Yet, opposed representatives said the social costs of such a bill would outweigh possible monetary benefits to employers.  Rep. Barbara Toles, D-Milwaukee, contested Kleefisch’s statement and said that the bill doesn’t only bar felons from employment; it punishes individuals twice for the same crime.

“How are they going to take care of themselves and their families?” said Toles.  “What I’m telling you is that you’re stopping them from being able to redeem themselves and recover from mistakes that they made.  Everybody has made mistakes at one point or another.”

Kleefisch added that the bill wouldn’t prohibit an employer from hiring a felon, but would allow them to consider a criminal record in the same way they would skills or hygiene. 

“And while you’re trying to paint a scenario whereby we should feel sorry for a felon, after he gets out, his life’s a little tough?” said Kleefisch.  “I guess I would say that should have been thought of before he made the decision or she made the decision to commit a felony.” 

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), was first to offer public testimony.  MUM is a private, nonprofit that supports ex-offenders reentering the community after incarceration. MUM also provides a mentoring program which matches volunteer mentors with children whose parents are incarcerated.

“Children, tens of thousands of them in the state of Wisconsin, are the collateral damage of our criminal justice system,” said Ketcham, “and if this bill is passed, it will mean more of those children continue in poverty due to parental unemployment.” 

Ketcham called the bill overly punitive, and said it was a remedy in search of a problem.  Felons already face significant stigma, she said, and because of public access to Wisconsin Circuit Court records (CCAP), where employers have free access to potential employees’ criminal records, the bill would legalize already-existing discrimination.

Ketcham said that because of CCAP, and the fact some online applications will boot an applicant as soon as they indicate they are a felon, many job-seekers have difficulty even earning an interview. As she spoke, she indicated a man in the room who had completed over 500 job applications without a single callback.

Ketcham said the system is particularly problematic for felons on community supervision whose conditions of probation require them to maintain employment.  Failure to meet this requirement might send an individual back to jail or prison.

In reference to the bill, Ketcham said, “It may be, in some peoples’ opinion, good labor law.  It is very bad corrections policy.”

After waiting to testify for over two hours, Miller approached the microphone and looked down the table toward the committee.  He poured a glass of water, and told his story.

Miller was convicted of armed robbery, second-degree sexual assault, and escape.  While he was in prison he said began to read, take classes, and make a plan for his life. 

Miller said he knew Gerald Turner personally and spent time with him in Waupun prison.  While he agreed that Turner-case was problematic, he said responsibility should fall on the justice system to release rehabilitated individuals and not on all convicted felons, regardless of their crimes.

“If they didn’t want him out here in Madison, they should’ve kept him in,” said Miller.

Miller also spoke of his efforts to rehabilitate: making the Dean’s list at Fox Valley Tech, and about the support and employment he found at MUM as a program assistant.

“MUM, built a circle around me…And I stayed in that circle for a long time. And I came every week faithfully.  And with that circle, and all the programming that I took, that helped me to become the person that I am now…I don’t know where I would’ve been had I not got a job.  I cannot say.  I only can say I got one and I feel blessed,” he said. 

Miller told the committee that the majority of incarcerated individuals will be released one day, and that the support they receive, or don’t receive, will have an effect on the safety of the community. 

“I’m just asking you guys, just please, don’t… don’t do this.  If you don’t want to hire them, please do something else.  This is not the solution right here,” said Miller. 

The day’s final public testimonies belonged to a group of young men and a woman from Project Return Inc., a Milwaukee-based group that assists individuals as they transition from incarceration to the community.

The group included Whitney Roberson, 25, who was arrested for check fraud at 17, and David Fields, an ex-offender who is now studying for his Master’s degree at UW-Milwaukee.  The two agreed that the bill will not only affect their application process; it enables employers to legally fire them if they are ever eligible for promotions.

Andre Brown, who also works with Project Return, said, “It’s not progress, it’s jaded judgment…How you going to black ball people from life?  We’re talking about livelihood and survival here…It’s frankly uncivilized, to me, to pretty much damage an otherwise civilized civilization,” said Brown.

After their testimonies, Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, thanked the group for their stories but said that deregulating business would make Wisconsin more business-friendly and improve odds for struggling job-seekers.   

“We feel very strongly. This is the way to go,” he said. “And if we can continue moving that scale of ‘hey this is a good place to do business,’ that is going to directly impact you guys and bring a lot more opportunity and that’s why we’re doing this.  Because we care about you guys and we care about people.  And we want to bring those jobs here.”

The day after the hearing, Miller sat in his mini-van in front of the Madison Concourse listening to 80s soul music.  Miller spoke less about the possible consequences of the hearing than his work with other ex-offenders at MUM.

“You got to give these guys some type of hope,” he said. “You need to breathe hope back into them…I’m trying to help all these guys see hey ‘you can do something else.  Just be patient, man.  Believe that you can do it and it’ll happen for you.’”

Update: Assembly Bill 286 was recommended for passage Oct. 20 after an executive session.  The bill will move to the Senate Labor, Public Safety and Urban Affairs Committee at 11:35 a.m. Oct. 24. 

For a copy of an essay John Miller wrote, reflecting on his experiences in prison, see here.

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