Can the government fire employees after the media highlights their criminal records? They may, but it may come with a cost. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) allowed three people into their training program who had records, and all of the felonies were over five years old. Two passed the training and made it to be drivers. Not an incident was reported until the media decided to do a fear tactic story, about who is driving folks around.
Within four days of the story, RIPTA Chairman of the Board, Thom Deller (who has his own ethical blemishes over a long and peculiar government career) announced that the two drivers are not on the road. He did not say if they had been fired. The bus drivers union, meanwhile, is holding a “No-Confidence” vote of the RIPTA CEO Charles Odimgbe. Union President John Harrington says “We believe in second chances, but there was a lack of good judgment hiring those individuals…” And therein lies the rub: when will it be good judgment?
Over 10% of the residents Providence, for example, are actively on probation or parole. Far more than 25% of the city has a criminal record. Over 50% of Black men in Providence have criminal records. These records range from petty to serious, recent to distant, with each subsequent charge being enhanced both in name and punishment. Ultimately, petty crimes for those with extensive histories result in major prison sentences. I note that to say this: those who have no felonies over the past five years have been faring well. At what point are they employable?
It is poor public safety policy to take a cross-section of any community and say you are not allowed to work. It is a sign of poor leadership if a community stands by as a bulk of the workforce is labeled “persona non grata,” and there is no pathway back into society. What is the message the legislators and the RIPTA Board are sending? The one I hear is “We don’t care where you look for work, just don’t look for work around here.” This translates into, we don’t care how you feed and house yourself, just go away. Yet there is no place else to go… except prison.
What is the message being heard by millions of people across the country who have criminal convictions? By tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders not lucky enough to work for an aunt or uncle? That message is clear: Don’t bother looking for work. Don’t bother getting an education. Don’t bother obeying the rules. Personally, I do not like that message one bit, yet I have heard it loudly for quite some time. It means more people quitting after ten rejections in their job search, when perhaps the eleventh application would have paid off. It means more drug sales. More breaking into businesses late at night looking for a means to eat and sleep. It means that people I care about are likely to end up on either end of a gun. It means someone I know may carjack someone else I know, with one mother in a visiting room and the other at a funeral.
Some people thrive off of distress. They enjoy the opportunity to squeeze increasing taxes out of the workers so they may militarize communities. They should stand up and be counted. More unemployment means more police and prisons. Courts can stay backed up and busy. Yet those same courts will also need to address systematic methods of forced unemployment. From the days of “No Irish Need Apply” to Jim Crow segregation, courts and lawmakers have ultimately responded to a public that demands a right to regulate its own communities. Title VII is just one avenue to attack systemic discrimination that links racial disparity with the effects of our current criminal justice system. The people are on the rise in this regard. Whether it is the recent victory in Detroit to “Ban the Box” on job applications, or Gov. Cuomo’s ability to extract millions from companies who discriminate based on criminal records, it is becoming more expensive to hold the Puritan line of a chosen people ruling over the outcasts.
No political system can maintain authority if the laws do not reflect the will of the people. This will is both national and local and, as our U.S. Constitution reads: Power is drawn from the consent of the governed. The war on drugs has long lost its consent of the people, and yet this war, primarily “fought” in low income areas wages on at the behest of those profiting from the carnage. Ultimately, the people in low-income areas (as elsewhere) need to come together, assess their problems, and propose solutions. We need to toss out the massive failures.
Do those who take public transportation in Rhode Island believe people with criminal records should not be allowed to work or drive the bus? Public transportation is primarily used by the poor and people of color; people who tend to know quite a few with a blemish on their record. People who have a different reality than those calling the shots. It is a shame to see elected and appointed leaders publicly state their assumptions that having a criminal record equates to being a bad person, a bad worker, or a danger to strangers. To have no judgment process, no filter, is to say that all people without criminal records are equal. They are all of the same intelligence, same work ethic, same moral standard, and should be awarded or punished all the same. Those who paint broad strokes are clearly ignorant, because they certainly do not have enough experience with the huge percentage of America who have been arrested and processed through our criminal justice system. Ignorance may get people elected, but it shouldn’t keep them in power.