Monday, March 06, 2006

Reactionary Bill Proposed to Curb UW Hiring Practices

Wisconsin State Rep. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) has drafted a bill that would allow the UW System and the state technical colleges to refuse to hire applicants solely on the basis of their felony records and also allow them to fire existing employees simply for having a felony record.

This bill is in direct response to a Legislative Audit Bureau report from last week that identified 40 felons who worked in the UW System as of September 2005—twelve of the forty no longer work in the system. The UW System is the largest employer in Wisconsin with about 42,000 employees.

Currently under Wisconsin fair employment laws, the UW System is prevented from discriminating against applicants and employees based upon their conviction record unless the crimes they committed are substantially related to their work duties.

If this bill becomes law, it will likely have the effect of severely limiting or even ending felony employment in the UW System and technical colleges. While that may sound like a good thing to some people at first glance, part of successful rehabilitation for convicted felons involves solid employment.

As UW-Madison vice chancellor Darrell Bazzell noted in response to the LAB report: “We expect people to pay for their crimes, but no one wants to see high recidivism rates among convicted criminals. One important aspect of reform is the ability to find some form of work and contribute to society. Like any other employer, universities play a role in that equation.”

A significant portion of the felonies committed in Wisconsin are non-violent in nature, as were the vast majority of those committed by felons identified in the LAB report as employees of the UW System. So the notion of needing to pass this law in order to “protect” the state college campuses, as Petrowski asserts, is quite overblown.

Granted, this bill does not require the UW System and the state technical colleges to refuse employment to felons or to fire them if currently employed. But with all of the media flack the UW in particular has received over the past couple of years, it stands to reason that the system might choose in the future to simply establish an internal policy of not hiring anyone with a felony record.

Plus, under the proposed bill, those felons who currently work in the system would be left open to termination for no reason, which is not the case with other system employees.

After all, how would the UW System explain even a few employees with felonies if a bill like this became law? Critics of the UW would have a field day dragging the system across the coals if they found out UW campuses were employing felons in spite of a state law the specifically allowed them to not hire or fire these individuals.

Besides, the LAB report did not even recommend giving the UW System the broad ability to deny or terminate employment based upon felony conviction record.

What the report recommended was that the UW Board of Regents establish an efficient system for identifying felons who are employed in positions substantially related to their convictions and also devise a way to pinpoint jobs that are deserving of a full background check prior to employment.

If this isn’t considered enough, I could see crafting a law that grants the UW System and tech schools broader employment discretion with felons convicted of violent crimes.

But there’s no reason to go as far as the Petrowski bill.

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