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District proposals to help offenders have the potential to do harm

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This was forwarded to me. It was written by Kris Hammond.


CREATING BETTER conditions for the reentry and rehabilitation of offenders is a worthy goal, and not just for the men and women released from prison. The community's interest is served if ex-offenders build crime-free lives. But two measures being considered by the D.C. Council to help offenders, no matter how well-intentioned, are cause for serious concern and, if approved, would undermine public safety.


Most problematic is an effort by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to amend the city's Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination in employment or housing based upon an arrest or conviction record. The bill adds a criminal record to such cherished protections as those for race, religion, sex and age. Here's what it could mean: A couple with small children couldn't refuse to rent the apartment in their duplex to a convicted sex offender; a bank couldn't disqualify a job seeker who served time for embezzlement as long as it didn't happen in the previous 10 years. Those simply using good judgment could be sued for punitive damages. No one is against giving people a second chance, but this bill goes too far.


The other measure would greatly expand the conditions for expungement, or sealing, of criminal records. (In full disclosure, The Washington Post testified against the measure in committee because the newspaper values access to complete and accurate criminal records.) The legislation builds on the thoughtful work of the Council for Court Excellence, which makes a compelling argument that there are instances (such as actual innocence) in which it is only right that a person not be burdened with the life-long stigma of a criminal record. The District lags behind a majority of states, including Virginia and Maryland, in allowing individuals to clear their records when appropriate. Yet again this proposal -- which would permit expungement of arrest records and even of certain conviction records -- goes too far. As Patricia A. Riley, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, testified, it "tips the scales too far against the public interest and public safety."


More should be done to help the 2,000 offenders returning to the city each year. Mr. Barry's idea to establish a city commission to coordinate and monitor services for ex-offenders has the potential to do good. By contrast, the other measures pose too great a risk.

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