D.C. Council Gives Criminals Special Protections

The Washington, D.C. Council voted 10 to 2 yesterday to ban employers from considering criminal records in housing, hiring or employment, if the criminal’s probation or parole officer thinks he has achieved “a degree of rehabilitation.” The bill was sponsored by convicted felon Marion Barry.

So if a couple with small children doesn’t want to rent a room in their duplex to a sex offender who is supposedly “rehabilitated,” it can be sued for punitive damages. And if a supposedly reformed bank robber wants to work for a bank, the bank has to ignore his criminal record.

The only paper to cover the bill’s passage was the D.C. Examiner, which buried the story deep in an inside page that few people will read, and which is available only in a PDF version of the entire page. (See second story under “News in Brief”).

Oddly, while The Washington Post editorialized against the bill yesterday, calling it a threat to public safety, its news staff did not report on its passage. (Ironically, the Post’s editorial page is more moderate than its supposedly unbiased news coverage, which often has a liberal slant).

Requiring employers to ignore criminal records is bad for Washington, D.C.’s business climate. It may also infringe on the First Amendment rights of certain nonprofits. Groups that exist to express a viewpoint have the right to choose spokespeople who share, and embody, that viewpoint.

Thus, in Boy Scouts v. Dale (2000), the Supreme Court made clear that the Boy Scouts don’t have to pick atheists or gays to be scoutmasters, even though a state law banned religious and sexual orientation discrimination, because the Boy Scouts seek to inculcate socially-conservative views about religion and sexuality. Similarly, the Washington State Supreme Court held that the Tacoma News-Tribune didn’t have to allow a political activist to be a news reporter, because that conflicted with the newspaper’s desire to provide balanced news coverage, even though local law banned political discrimination.

By similar reasoning, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focuses on criminal justice issues, or advocating for victims of crime, should not have to hire an ex-convict to work for it, regardless of what the D.C. Council demands.

The same day that the D.C. Council voted to ban discrimination against ex-offenders, it also voted itself a hefty pay raise, making D.C. Council members better paid by far than Maryland or Virginia legislators.