SAN FRANCISCO – This city, known for its tolerance, has banned housing and employment discrimination against gays, lesbians and minority groups — but a new plan to add ex-convicts to that list has some people saying officials are going too far.
Under a proposal before the city's Human Rights Commission, private employers and landlords would be prohibited from disqualifying applicants because they have been convicted of a crime or been arrested.
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. But others say that business owners have a right to be cautious in order to protect themselves and others.
Similar policies have been implemented by several states and more than twenty local governments across the nation.
San Francisco's proposal was floated by the city's Reentry Council — a group that helps adult convicts leaving jail or prison and includes representatives from the District Attorney's Office, the police department and the sheriff's department.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose office is also represented on the council, said the panel found that employers and landlords were increasingly using background checks and eliminating candidates with criminal records.
"What we saw then is really a revolving door," he said. "A person would be released from custody, not be able to secure housing, not be able to find a job and wind up back in the (prison) system."
One in four adults in California — about 7 million people — has a misdemeanor or felony arrest or conviction record, according to the Reentry Council. And the state is under federal orders to reduce its prison population by more than 20 percent over the next two years.
Adachi said these factors add particular importance to removing barriers to employment and housing.
However, David Wasserman, a board member with the San Francisco Apartment Association, said courts have made it clear that owners are responsible for any harm caused by their tenants.
"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."
City officials caution that the proposal is in its early stages and far from being finalized and sent to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
"We're still very much in the development, information-gathering stage," said David Miree, a spokesman for the Human Rights Commission, which held a public forum on the proposal Wednesday.
Adachi said a provision in the proposal would allow employers and landlords to consider a person's criminal record if it were related to the job or housing being sought.
But Wasserman said it's not clear what would constitute a housing-related conviction.
"How in the world can our owners make that determination," he said. "That's impossible."
Several states, including California, and more than twenty cities have made it easier for ex-convicts to obtain government jobs by preventing state agencies from asking prospective employees whether they have a prior conviction on their initial job applications, said Michelle Rodriguez, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. If the conviction is considered later in the process, some states also require a determination as to whether it has any relationship to the job.
The provisions in at least four states — Hawaii, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York — also apply to the private sector.
Rodriguez says that in many cases employment barriers are unnecessarily restrictive.
"There's a misconception that this is about protecting prisoners," said Rodriguez. "Even people with convictions that are 10, 20, 30 years old are finding those coming up on background checks and affecting their employment."