City Ignores Plea for Fair Hiring Policy

Commission won’t listen, mayor misleads media

By Eli Braun

Cincinnati’s Fair Hiring Now Coalition rallied at City Hall on Feb. 25, to deliver over 1,000 letters from city residents and community groups asking Mayor Mark Mallory and his appointed Civil Service Commission to end their policy of denying city jobs to qualified applicants who have felony convictions.

The Civil Service Commission is responsible for establishing screening standards used in the hiring of certain civil service employees for the city of Cincinnati.

For at least three years the mayor and the Civil Service Commission have refused to acknowledge that a no-felon hiring policy even exists, much less consider creating a smarter policy. The AMOS Project, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission therefore joined together to draw attention to the discriminatory practice.

The city’s obstructionist stance was only more deeply confirmed by its response to the rally.

Representatives of the Fair Hiring Now Coalition planned to testify during the commission’s regular Feb. 25 meeting, but upon learning of the rally, the commission canceled the section for public comment. Over 50 Cincinnati residents arrived at City Hall for the commission’s 9 a.m. meeting only to find that they would have no opportunity to testify. News crews from WLWT and WXIX captured their surprise on video.

After the rally, the mayor’s staff called the news stations to deny that the city had a no-felon hiring policy. It was all a miscommunication, the mayor’s staff asserted. The news stations pulled the stories.

The concerted efforts of respected community groups representing thousands of Cincinnatians apparently arose from a misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a single phone call.

The morning after the rally, Mallory taped a segment for WKRC’s Newsmakers with Dan Hurley, in which he once again denied that the city’s no-felon hiring policy existed.

“There is not a blanket policy that says we cannot hire felons,” Mallory said. “It’s always been my belief that you have to give people that second opportunity. The city of Cincinnati can’t be exempt.”

Mallory’s claim doesn’t match the evidence, according to David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.

“Bottom line,” he said on a different segment of Newsmakers, “if you’re applying for a civil service job, you’re not going to get it if you have a criminal record.”

While the mayor maintains one façade for the cameras, he presides over a government that denies rehabilitated people with criminal records the opportunity to work for their city.

Stop that Singing

The commission canceled is public comment section the afternoon before the rally. It did not explain why. There was no time to alert community members who planned to attend.

“That train had left the station,” said organizer Stephen JohnsonGrove, who directs the Second Chance Project at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, where he focuses on alleviating barriers faced by former offenders.

While organizers passed out an agenda and song sheet, Cincinnati Police Sgt. Richard Antoine told the group, “There will be no singing or chanting in these hallways! This is a workplace, not a place of protest. If you need to sing, you’ll go outside where you need to be.”

JohnsonGrove spoke up.

“You have a First Amendment right to say what you need to say,” he reminded the group. “Please don’t be dissuaded.”

At 9:15 a.m., when the commission opened the meeting room doors, over 50 Cincinnati citizens tried to squeeze inside. Half fit into the room, while others filled the outside hallway.

“Ain’t council chambers the people’s house?” asked coalition member Marjorie Moseley.

Inside the crowded meeting room, Fair Hiring Campaign organizers Pastor Troy Jackson and JohnsonGrove negotiated for two minutes of speaking time with the commission. Jackson, of University Christian Church, an AMOS Project congregation, spoke first.

“Jesus was a felon,” he said. “Moses murdered a man. Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and James all spent time in prison. Jesus was a convicted criminal when he went to the cross. Our faith teaches us that people with criminal records should not be forever condemned.”

JohnsonGrove also spoke.

“The current policy of barring all former offenders is wooden, rigid, one-size fits all, and we need a fairer way forward,” he said. “We’re not asking for guaranteed jobs. We just want fair consideration for people with old and irrelevant criminal records.”

The commission gave no reply. Others who wished to speak were not permitted.

“If people have meaningful jobs, they tend to become productive members of society,” said Sheila Donaldson-Johnson, a rehabilitated former offender who would have spoken during the open forum. “Being able to support your family makes all the difference in the world.”

From the third-floor meeting room, the crowd migrated downstairs to the mayor’s office to deliver over 1,000 letters of support, encouraging the city to change its hiring policy.

Descending City Hall’s marble steps past the stained glass windows, coalition members sang, “It’s my brother and my sister and it’s me, Oh Lord, standing in the need of jobs! It’s we, it’s we, it’s we, Oh Lord, standing in the need of jobs!”

No one was arrested or asked to leave.

The mayor’s office had locked its doors and police officers blocked the entrance.

“Are you saying that the mayor doesn’t want to hear from us?” JohnsonGrove asked the officers, loud enough for the assembly to hear.

Antoine replied that Mallory wasn’t in.

“Are you saying that no one from the mayor’s staff wants to hear from us?” JohnsonGrove said.

The doors opened.

JohnsonGrove presented the letters in stacks of a hundred, followed by organizational letters of support from multiple religious congregations, Talbert House, the Urban League, Cincinnati State Community and Technical College and the law offices of former Hamilton County Prosecutor Michael Allen and former Cincinnati Mayor David Mann.

The crowd shuffled out to the City Hall steps, while police officers pulled the organizers aside.

Standing on the City Hall steps moments later, Pastor Gregory Chandler, president of the AMOS Project, told the coalition that the police officers said that their gathering had been illegal.

“I thought it was a public building!” someone cried out.

“Not too public,” called another.

Chandler rallied the group.

“We thank them for the opportunity to have this discourse,” he said.

Elsewhere he explained his opposition to the city’s policy.

“Treating folks who have turned their lives around like pariahs damages them and it damages all of us. … The city’s no-felon rule violates our fundamental values, damages struggling families, and tears at the fabric of our society,” Chandler said.

Second chances

The letters that the Fair Hiring Campaign presented to the mayor’s office encouraged the city to adopt guidelines to help determine whether an individual with a felony record should be hired.

The city could consider the gravity of the offense, the age of the applicant at the time of the offense, the time elapsed, the relevance of the offense to the duties of the present job and evidence of rehabilitation.

But the city jettisons such nuance in categorically barring people with irrelevant and seemingly ancient criminal records. These restrictions hinder the ability of former offenders to successfully reintegrate after completing their sentences. By condemning rehabilitated people to unemployment and under-employment, the no-felon hiring policy ends up increasing the burden on the city’s own overloaded criminal justice and public welfare systems.

Gene Mays, profiled in Nov. 1, 2009, of Streetvibes, was one such candidate for city employment. Mays ranked first in his class all five years of his union apprenticeship and is by all accounts a supremely qualified electrician. The commission saw extensive evidence of his rehabilitation from his nonviolent 13- and 19-year-old drug felonies, but concluded anyway that “he had a couple of felony convictions on his record, and could therefore not be hired for city employment.”

Their assessment came in spite of the mayor’s claim that the city doesn’t bar former offenders from city jobs. The city’s law department fought Mays’s appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Advocates explain that after a certain period of time, someone with a criminal record is at no greater risk of offending than a same-aged counterpart who has never offended. Researchers confirmed that fact in a May 2009 study in the journal Criminology. For example, they found that for 18-year-olds arrested for robbery in 1980, that period was 7.7 years. Yet people convicted of crimes far less serious than robbery needlessly face job barriers decades later.

The no-felon hiring policy is based on fear, not evidence. Far from making our communities safer, job restrictions serve to punish people with old criminal records years after they have paid their debt to society. They also apparently serve the interests of a duplicitous mayor who preaches a message of second chances that his own administration demonstrably ignores.

His obfuscation thwarts not just the media’s responsibility to report honestly, but the efforts of rehabilitated people seeking to serve their families and, in spite of their mayor, their city.