Reading – April 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a roundtable discussion on employment challenges facing people with criminal records.
“While acknowledging that reasonable restrictions and prohibitions are appropriate in some cases, we must do all we can to remove needless barriers that prevent non-violent ex-offenders from accessing the job market,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee.
Schwank added, “When it comes to lesser crimes, few people believe that a person’s past mistakes should relentlessly haunt or curtail their ability to find a decent job to support themselves and their family. This discussion focuses on problems that both ex-offenders and employers face.
“I asked that this committee discussion be held in Reading to give local advocates and experts an opportunity to amplify their views on this difficult issue.”
Schwank said that onerous expungement requirements and other impediments such as pre-interview screening have had tragic consequences. She said barriers to employment have led to increased homelessness, more crime, recidivism and prompted cities and states nationwide to spend billions on housing and other support services for ex-offenders who are perfectly capable and willing to work.
“About a fifth of men and women on probation or parole are at risk of re-incarceration, and many return to prison within three years,” Schwank noted. “These folks need a decent job and place to live, or they could tragically fall back into the criminal justice system.”
Several lawmakers have introduced bills aimed at removing work barriers; expediting the criminal record expungement process; and prohibiting employers from pre-screening job
applicants for criminal records. Last legislative session, a bill (Senate Bill 391) that would have reformed the expungement process unanimously passed the state senate, but stalled out in the House of Representatives.
“With prison costs devouring more and more budget dollars, we cannot afford to ignore the growing prison population trend,” Schwank said. “Pennsylvania’s prison population has quadrupled since the 1980s. If we can just help non-violent ex-offenders get hired, we can help reduce corrections costs, cut crime in our communities and strengthen our economy by putting more people to work.”
Peggy Kershner, who serves as co-executive director of the Berks Connections Pre-trial Services, said that her organization helps remove employment barriers facing ex-offenders. She said much of the emphasis needs to be aimed at educating and encouraging business owners to give ex-offenders a second chance.
Local businessman Hamid Chaudhry recommended that state government establish a statewide toll-free employer support hotline. Attorney Janet Ginzberg from Community Legal Services asked that state laws be strengthened and clarified governing when and how employers may use background checks. Berks District justice Victor Frederick asked that the state consider issuing occupation-limited driver’s licenses for certain motorist’s whose licenses were suspended.
Schwank and Boscola were joined at the hearing by Senators Shirley Kitchen (D-Phila.), and Larrry Farnase (D-Phila.). The took part in the discussion:
- Vaughn D. Spencer, Mayor of Reading
- Peggy Kershner, Co-Executive Director of the Berks Connections Pre-Trial Services
- Janet Ginzberg, Staff Attorney, Employment Law Unit, Community Legal Services, Philadelphia
- Dan McIntyre, Deputy Executive Director, PA State Board of Probation and Parole
- James C. Young, Criminal Justice Committee Chair, Reading NAACP
- Hamid Chaudhry and Steve Elmarzouky, local business owners
- Rev. Sandra L. Strauss, Director of Public Advocacy, PA Council of Churches
- Mark Mekilo, chief counsel to Sen. Vince Hughes.
- Christopher Brader and Darryl Blackwell, Berks County residents.
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