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Help for Ex-Offenders

Gov. Deal's Council on criminal justice offers ways to make it easier for ex-convicts to find jobs and housing

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Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform council explained the proposals it's considering at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee.
Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform council explained the proposals it's considering at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee.

Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform council is set to debate and vote Dec. 18 on proposals to make it easier for former offenders to secure jobs and housing.

Proposals that the council could recommend to the General Assembly for legislation during the 2014 session include establishing negligent hiring liability protection for businesses that employ ex-convicts, creating a private cause of action for citizens so they can sue consumer reporting agencies and databases that report sealed criminal records to prospective employers and prohibiting most state departments and agencies from inquiring about someone's criminal background on a job application.

Some of the proposals were brought to the governor's attention this fall by the Georgia Justice Project, which has been pushing the measures for years but just recently found traction when the Legislature saw the economic value in reversing past tough-on-crime measures that led to billions in corrections spending without making a dent in recidivism.

W. Thomas Worthy, deputy executive counsel to the governor and co-chairman of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, said he has not polled the council's membership, and he wouldn't speculate on whether the proposals will be approved.

He said the council is mulling negligent hiring liability protection as an incentive for businesses to hire ex-convicts.

Georgia law currently requires that negligent hiring claims be backed by evidence that an employer knew or "reasonably should have known" of an employee's propensity to commit a certain crime. The fear of litigation has led to businesses refusing to hire people with criminal backgrounds even if their past crimes are completely unrelated to the job, according to the Georgia Justice Project. A bank hiring a teller with a past DUI should not be held to the same liability as a bank that hires a teller with an armed robbery background, Project officials have argued.

The criminal justice reform council is considering codifying a presumption that employers are not liable based solely on an employee's criminal history. The idea may be coupled with a proposal that would allow the state Department of Corrections to issue past offenders certificates of employability, Worthy said. The certificates would attest that the offenders completed all the requirements of their incarceration, such as drug addiction treatment or vocational training.

While the council appears mostly supportive of the Georgia Justice Project's other push, to eliminate criminal background check questions from job applications, an idea casually referred to as "banning the box," the council does not have the appetite to mandate that private employers do so.

"The council may do something like the city of Atlanta and require the state to ban the box and, thus, lead by example," Worthy said. The policy would not apply to public safety jobs.

The criminal justice reform council also will consider eliminating the automatic suspension of driver's licenses for most drug violators. Worthy noted the Legislature last year approved a measure allowing drug or DUI offenders who successfully completed accountability court requirements to get their licenses back. Next week, the council "will debate whether it is smart to walk back the blanket suspension," excluding drug cases in which motor vehicles were involved, Worthy said.

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