A legislative proposal in San Francisco seeks to make ex-cons and felons a protected class, along with existing categories of residents like African-Americans, people with disabilities and pregnant women. If passed by city supervisors, landlords and employers would be prohibited from asking applicants about their criminal past.
Supporters say it's an effort to help former offenders get back on their feet, but critics call the concept a crime in itself.
"My mother is an immigrant, my mother-in-law is a Jew and I'm a gay man. Those are all protected categories, but you're going to put a felon in there as a protected category? That's not right," said Andrew Long, a board member of the San Francisco Apartment Association.
But ex-cons contend they're immediately disqualified by employers and landlords reluctant to trust anyone with a rap sheet.
"People don't want to hire felons," says Monique Love, who served time five years ago on a drug offense. Clean and sober now, she says boxes on application forms asking about criminal history unfairly discriminate against her. At one recent interview, Monique says she never got the chance to tell her story of recovery and rehabilitation.
"I didn't get a shot. Not a shot," she says. "As soon as he saw that box was checked, the boss was like, 'I'm sorry, we can't help you.'"
According to The City's Human Rights Commission, San Francisco has the highest recidivism rate of any big city in California, almost 80 percent. With an influx of new prisoners set to be released because of the state's budget crisis, supporters argue felons need legal protections before they're disqualified simply because of their record, which could be decades old and for crimes that have nothing to do with the job they're hoping to get.
Commission Director Teresa Sparks calls it a public safety issue.
"Without housing, it's hard to keep a steady job, and many times because of that, people recommit," Sparks said. She argues a criminal history shouldn't be the only reason someone is denied housing or work.
"All we're saying is get a chance to know them, see if they're qualified otherwise, before you use that as a criteria for taking them out," she said.
Hawaii, New York and Philadelphia have enacted similar policies to prevent blanket discrimination against felons in the private job market, and some cities in Illinois and Wisconsin have imposed such restrictions on rental property owners.
At a public hearing at San Francisco's City Hall this week, some landlords worried that if the policy passes here, they'll face a barrage of lawsuits from unscrupulous convicts.
"Some ex-cons will probably make this a business, going from apartment complex to apartment complex, getting denied for whatever reason, and then filing a nuisance lawsuit," Long said.
Sparks says rental property owners could turn away sex offenders and people who've committed some violent crimes, like murder. Employers could also reject job applicants if their crimes are "significantly related" to the position they are seeking, but they could only inquire about the applicants' criminal past at the end of the interview process.
That doesn't sit well with Gary Bauer, owner of Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, one of San Francisco's biggest transportation companies. He says he needs to know about an applicants criminal history right up front.
"We won't discriminate against anyone, but we need to know what we're looking at. What is their background? Is it grand auto theft? We're running transportation," Bauer said, adding, "Being in California, and in San Francisco, it gets tougher and tougher every year ... when they come down with these things."
Public hearings continue to formalize the legislation, with lawsuits sure to follow, if San Francisco gives legal protections to people who broke the law.