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Md. law makes it difficult to employ ex-offenders

Md. law makes it difficult to employ ex-offenders
Jason Easley after getting off from his construction job. Easley who has a criminal record is in support of a legislation filed in Baltimore City to require that private employers wait until later in an interview process to ask about a person's previous convictions. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

It’s true that not enough employers are lining up to give Maryland’s formerly incarcerated population a second chance. But when you look at the reasons behind that decision, it’s difficult to blame them.

While there are numerous second chance programs in place within our state, there are challenges to the hiring process. One factor is that under current law, an employer could be held civilly liable for a negligent act committed by an employee solely because of that employee’s criminal past, regardless of whether the prior criminal offense bears any relation to the current issue.

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Yes, that’s right, the mere fact of a prior criminal history could be viewed as enough to establish that an employer “knew or should have known” that the employee was “potentially dangerous.”

What we’ve learned at the Maryland Chamber is that the business community is willing and able to provide a returning citizen a second chance, but in order to ease the concerns of unnecessary and costly liability exposure, legal safeguards for the employer must be enacted.

The potential for litigation, and the concurrent cost, could be devastating for a business — especially a small business. It is for these reasons that employers are so diligent in their application and screening processes. Often, an applicant’s criminal record is enough for an employer to reject their application.

That is really a shame because certainly the ingredients for a successful re-integration of returning citizens into the workforce are there. The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation (DLLR) has a Correctional Education (CE) Division that provides educational opportunities to over 9,000 inmates in Maryland. CE equips these individuals with the skills they need to successfully transition to the workforce after release. Through a combination of academic and workforce development instruction, inmates are gaining the tools necessary to re-integrate into society upon their release.

So now what? We should remove the obstacle for employers wanting to hire those returning to their community, not punish them for wanting to do so. A previous crime for which an individual paid the appropriate penalty should not dictate the rest of his or her life, and studies have shown that those returning citizens tend to be more reliable and committed than the average employee population.

Certainly, we at the Maryland Chamber don’t want businesses being punished for not hiring those previously incarcerated or to make employers feel as if they must favor those individuals in the hiring process just to avoid violating the law. But our member companies — large and small — do understand the importance of a “second chance.”

That’s why the Maryland Chamber, along with a number of businesses and organizations such as the Jobs Opportunity Task Force, Vehicles for Change, MedStar Health, the Johns Hopkins University as well as several members of the Maryland General Assembly and others, will be working together to find a practical and rational balance.

We have a good legislative model to review in what has already been accomplished by our neighbors to the north in Pennsylvania. The Justice Reinvestment Act there provides immunity from liability for businesses who hire someone previously incarcerated. The act includes provisions that offer protections on the failure to adequately supervise.

There is also a great local example of a company that has been willing to take on the risk of hiring recently paroled individuals in Maryland. Mobern Lighting in Jessup, which has designed and manufactured energy efficient lighting fixtures and solutions for industrial and commercial applications since 1944, has offered life-changing opportunities to those previously incarcerated through a partnership with the Howard County Detention Center for nearly a decade.

This issue is but one of several that our group will seek to address as we prepare for the 2020 Maryland General Assembly legislative session. Attention will also be directed toward sensible, effective legislative advancements in education and training programs, elimination of unnecessary and restrictive barriers to those citizens seeking to return, and realistic protections and incentives for employers to welcome them back.

For those citizens reentering the workforce, the responsibility of employment offers financial support as well as the ability to build a life removed from past habits that might otherwise lead to reoffending. That should be reason enough to offer them a second chance, and reason enough to make it much easier for businesses to do so in Maryland.

Christine Ross (christineross@mdchamber.org) is president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

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