The City of Wichita, in compliance with Kansas state law, has imposed new restrictions on companies that are subcontracted to perform landscaping jobs. According to the new addendum which took effect last month, a company that mows grass for the City of Wichita cannot send people with certain felony convictions to work on certain city properties, including Cowtown, athletic fields, parks, etc., which are all areas that are open to the public, including felons. In other words, a felon can walk on the grass in question, but cannot be paid to mow that grass.
“It is the responsibility of the successful bidder to do criminal background checks on all employees that will be assigned to do grounds maintenance of any park, playground facility and athletic field. The contractor will insure, subject to City audit, that no employee will have a criminal record that involved the following, sexual battery, sexual assault, drug use, drug possession with intent to sell or distribute, or armed robbery.” – City of Wichita
Drug use? Many people with sexual offenses are banned from these areas to begin with, but I don’t see why someone who has served their time for “drug use” or armed robbery for that matter, should be banned from mowing the grass of a playground in broad daylight. These background checks are required to go back seven years, which prevents thousands of potential applicants from gaining employment.
Grassroots activists in Wichita are working with small business owners to increase opportunity for people with criminal histories, in an effort to reintegrate such people into society, and at the same time, we have the state forcing the city to place more obstacles in front of those with felony convictions. Companies that wish to do business with the City of Wichita and other municipalities in the state are basically being discouraged from hiring felons for entry-level landscaping positions.
Finding work as a felon, as many will tell you, is very difficult, despite a $2,000 tax credit businesses receive for hiring them. Municipalities should be encouraging businesses to hire felons, rather than penalizing them for them for doing so and the state should be supportive as well. Brandon Johnson, the Executive Director of Community Operations Recovery Empowerment (CORE), a Wichita-based non-profit organization dedicated to uplifting low-income communities, says we have to offer those re-entering society the opportunity to succeed.
“I find it extremely disappointing that our elected leaders of our city and state continue to reject employment opportunities to citizens who have paid their debt to society. These returning citizens have two basic needs once they rejoin society, a place to reside and an employment opportunity to encourage them to be productive members of society. Denying them that opportunity is counter-productive and many times leads to a state of hopelessness in which that citizen resumes the same acts that landed them in state custody in the first place. If we are serious about finding solutions to criminal activity, then banning the box and allowing felons to work is a great first step.”
Janice Bradley, a member of Jobs and Education not Incarceration (JENI), a local group that advocates for increasing opportunity and reducing incarceration, says low-income defendants have the cards stacked against them from the start.
“People without much money who have overworked, court appointed attorneys are often forced to cop pleas for convictions. The felony will stay with them for the rest of their lives, affecting their ability to get a job, to vote, get student loans, get food stamps, help with public housing. One minor mistake has lifetime ramifications that never go away.”
In addition to the obvious hurdles that convicted felons have to overcome, there are also employers in the city who seek to take advantage of felons. Kansas Painting Solutions has been accused of wage theft by at least five employees, charges the company, which is owned by a convicted felons, denies.
Summer Henderson knows firsthand what it is like to look for work as a convicted felon. Henderson became a felon in 2001 and is still paying for her mistake today, while trying to raise three daughters.
“It is not just hard, it’s discouraging. First, they put you on probation and require you to find employment, but employers have rules on felons so your options become slim for good work that pays decent, unless you want fast-food, construction, heavy labor jobs, warehouse, assembly etc.. I’ve worked jobs for so little pay I have to work three to stay afloat at times. I paid $10,000 in fines, plus community service. I feel as if I did all my requirements and have stayed out of trouble, which should count for something, but it doesn’t.”
Some local small businesses do make a point to hire convicted felons, when they can, to offer a second chance to those who are seeking to better themselves. Jeremy Cannefax, owner of Cannefax Painting, understands that giving felons a second chance benefits the community as a whole.
“I don’t look at felons as different than other people. I have been there and if we dont give them a second chance then we are just hurting our own community. They will only be left to turn to crime, just to support their family.”
Jennifer Winn, president of Landscapes Inc., and a candidate for governor, also hires felons, and is one of the contractors who will be affected by this state law that the City of Wichita is being forced to comply with.
“Several of my employees have felony convictions in their pasts. I do not judge applicants by the mistakes they made, but rather by how hard they are willing to work to correct those mistakes. This law makes it harder for me to hire felons, because I need people that I can send to any job site we have. As a community, we need to ensure that we are providing second chances for people, especially young people.”
Laws that make it harder for convicted felons to find work do not benefit society. Kansas’ recidivism rate, or the percentage of parolees who return to prison within three years of their release, is 33.1%, which, according to Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, is below the national average of 43.3%, but we still have a third of those being released from prison returning within three years.
Kansas is one of the states that allow convicted felons to vote, once they have completed probation/parole and have their cases terminated in court, a fact that many felons are not aware of.
Everyone understands why people with certain violent convictions, and sex crime convictions should not be working public parks or on athletic fields used by children, but those who were convicted of “drug use”, whatever that means, and other nonviolent crimes should be given every opportunity to better themselves and the state should not be hindering those efforts.