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Pressure Builds for Feds to ‘Ban the Box’

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PrisonCells

By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Seventeen states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws making it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs in the labor market. Now civil rights and community groups that advocate for returning citizens are pushing the White House to do the same.

Even though politicians on both sides of the aisle have warmed up to criminal justice reform and smarter sentencing policies, an estimated 70 million adults in the United States have arrests or conviction records and 9 in 10 employers conduct criminal background checks, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a workers’ rights group.

The Sentencing Project, a group that has advocated for criminal justice reform nearly 30 years, called the United States “the world’s leader incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails – a 500% increase over the past thirty years.”

Blacks, who are nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 35.7 percent of state and federal prison population, compared to Whites who make up 32.8 percent.

“Our justice system is deeply unjust and unfair,” said Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights groups. “We often focus on the incarceration rate and the impact that policing and sentencing have on communities of color, but the injustice of our system is much more widespread.”

That’s because the United States continues to punish people long after they have paid their debts to society, said Henderson.

Most people who are convicted of crimes return to their communities, often facing greater challenges to finding affordable housing, educational opportunities and jobs.

“These barriers make it incredibly difficult for people to rebuild their lives and become the contributing members of society that we want them to be,” said Henderson. “As a result, millions of people are being left behind and left out.”

When those workers are left out, the economy suffers.

“Economists estimated that because people with felony records and formerly incarcerated people have poor job prospects, the nation’s gross domestic product in 2008 was between $57 and $65 billion lower than it would have been had they been gainfully employed,” stated the National Employment Law Project (NELP) report.

“Federal action is what’s right and is what’s needed as a matter of fairness, but without addressing the employment needs of the massive numbers of people with records who are locked out of the labor market, the economy suffers as well,” said Maurice Emsellem, the program director for NELP. “Especially in communities like Baltimore and elsewhere ravaged by criminal justice system.”

Some of the biggest companies in the United States are taking notice and revising their hiring policies to provide greater opportunities to ex-offenders.

KOCH Industries, worth more than $100 billion, recently joined Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot to “ban the box” on job applications.

According to the NELP, “There are a total of 17 states representing nearly every region of the country that have adopted the policies —California (2013, 2010), Colorado (2012), Connecticut (2010), Delaware (2014), Georgia (2015), Hawaii (1998), Illinois (2014, 2013), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (2010), Minnesota (2013, 2009), Nebraska (2014), New Jersey (2014), New Mexico (2010), Ohio (2015), Rhode Island (2013), Vermont (2015), and Virginia (2015).”

Six states have required that private employers remove the question about criminal background from job applications.

“These companies and states are seeing what the federal government hasn’t – that fair chance hiring isn’t just good for communities, it’s good for our economy,” said Henderson. “Certainly those industries would not adopt policies that hurt their bottom line and if they can show the kind of leadership, civic engagement and commitment to fair play in the workforce, then surely the federal government can follow behind.”

Andrea Marta, the campaign manager for Lifelines to Healing, an initiative of the PICO National Network, said that finding a job is the key to helping people return to their communities.

“Jobs help provide redemption and the second chance that many of our folks need to be successful once they come home,” said Marta. “People can walk away from the cycle of violence and poverty through a job that can prevent it.”

Dorsey Nunn, the executive director Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the co-founder All of Us or None, said that it’s a contradiction to say that citizens can return to their communities after serving their citizens while depriving them of the rights and resources needed to get ahead.

Earlier this month, a group from PICO National Network that included ex-offenders met with White House officials and staffers from the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about recommendations for returning citizens facing employment and housing barriers.

Akim Lattermore, a community leader with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative said in a statement, “You can’t resolve policy issues surrounding fair hiring and the formerly incarcerated unless you have those impacted in the room.”

Emsellem said that “Ban the Box” legislation is also in compliance with current civil rights laws that require employers to take into account the age of the record directly related to job or rehabilitation programs that the applicant has completed.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance on hiring practices, encouraging companies to be more mindful of how they use an applicant’s criminal background history in judging whether they’re qualified to do the job because they might unintentionally violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Emsellem said that the beauty of “ban the box” policies is their ability to isolate an applicant’s past criminal record, because those questions come at the end of the hiring process, after the employer has made every other decision. So it’s clear that the employer is judging the potential employee based on his ability or prior conviction.

Emsellem continued, “That creates a real opening and makes it way easier to argue these legal issues and puts the employer, honestly, in a really tough spot.”

Nunn said that if the federal government is going to spend his tax dollars, then he should have access to everything that they spend his money on. That includes jobs with companies that do business with and for the federal government.

“There are boxes all over the place that exclude me from access to a meaningful life,” Nunn said. “’Ban the box’ is more than a question of fair chance hiring. I want the full restoration of my civil and human rights and this is just the first step in the process.”

Business

Oakland City Council Considers Proposal to Limit City’s Highest Annual Rent Hike in History

In Oakland, landlords can raise rents up to 100% of the inflation rate. So, a 6.7% increase in inflation this year means that landlords can raise rents the same percentage. For an apartment rented for $2,000 a month, the 6.7% rent increase would mean that a tenant’s rent would increase more than $100 to $2,134 a month.

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District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife introduced a bill to bring Oakland’s calculator more in line with other cities. The law is scheduled for a vote on May 31. If it passes before the current allowable rent hike goes into effect on July 1, then the lower allowable increase will take effect instead.

By Brandon Patterson

Last month, Oakland housing regulators announced that starting in July, landlords would be permitted to raise rents by up to 6.7% — the highest annual increase in the city’s history. The announcement prompted an outcry from renters at City Council meetings and hearings in recent weeks – and calls to local councilmembers.

Now, City Council is considering a proposal to limit the rent increase and give renters, many of whom are already struggling, some needed relief.

In many Bay Area cities, where housing has been an issue for decades, the amount landlords are allowed to raise rents every year is tied to inflation. This stabilizes rents by limiting increases, ensuring more security for renters’ households.

In Oakland, landlords can raise rents up to 100% of the inflation rate. So, a 6.7% increase in inflation this year means that landlords can raise rents the same percentage. For an apartment rented for $2,000 a month, the 6.7% rent increase would mean that a tenant’s rent would increase more than $100 to $2,134 a month.

This deviates from other cities like Berkeley and San Francisco, however, where the annual allowable rent increase is capped at 65% and 60% of inflation, respectively, according to Oaklandside. That means that for the same $2,000 apartment, rents would increase to about $2,087 in Berkeley or $2084 in San Francisco — about $50 less.

Housing justice and tenants’ rights groups have long criticized how differently Oakland calculates its rent hikes from other cities, and earlier this month, District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife introduced a bill to bring Oakland’s calculator more in line with other cities. The bill would reduce the allowable annual rent increase to just 60% of inflation. It would also cap the allowable rent increase to 3% of the current rent, even if the inflation rate would allow for a higher one.

“I do want to create some security for renters,” Fife told NBC Bay Area in a recent interview. “Oakland is a majority renter city: Over 60% of the residents of the city of Oakland are renters, and it doesn’t make sense to put them in this type of jeopardy.”

“It’s not like we’re coming out of COVID—it’s all around us,” Mark Dias, co-chair of the Oakland Tenants Union, told Oaklandside. “If tenants weren’t able to financially recover from that period of time, they’re also going to be hit with an increase that is legal,” adding that he was “astonished” by the pending rent hike this year.

But some property owners are pushing back, arguing that increases in the cost of operating housing necessitates the higher rent hike. “There has also been an extraordinary increase in everything: water, gas, electric, sewer, repair services, equipment, appliances, plumbing,” Derek Barnes, CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, told NBC Bay Area. “You also have a housing stock that’s older, that really needs a lot of maintenance.”

The law is scheduled for a vote on May 31. If it passes before the current allowable rent hike goes into effect on July 1, then the lower allowable increase will take effect instead.

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Bay Area

Mom and Pop Business Destroyed by Marriott Project

The Thomases have lost their tenants because of the noise and dust. The Thomases’ last remaining tenant, who asked not to be named, says her quality of life has diminished drastically, “I can’t open my windows. The shadow of their building has taken our sunlight and all my plants have died,” she said.

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Scaffolding at a Marriott structure in Downtown Oakland broke loose March 28, threatening the safety of pedestrians below. Photo by Craig Jones.
Scaffolding at a Marriott structure in Downtown Oakland broke loose March 28, threatening the safety of pedestrians below. Photo by Craig Jones.

By Tanya Dennis

Uncle Willie’s Bar-be-cue, located on 14th Street in Downtown Oakland, continues to struggle to survive the Marriott Hotel construction literally occurring in their backyard. Craig Jones, the son of owners William and Beverly Thomas, says it is a clear example of white power/privilege suppressing Black power and building of generational wealth.

“My parents bought this building in 2005 and have operated Uncle Willie’s for 16 years,” Jones said. “We have four rental units on the top of our store and, in 2017, contracted with The Kingdom Development Group to do a complete teardown and rebuild 24 units of housing, a $10 million project.

“This was my parents’ plan to pass generational wealth to me. Then, in 2018, Marriott started construction next door. We could no longer cook outside in the back because of the dust, danger and filth created by Marriott, and we lost half our tenants,” Jones said.

The Thomases went to the mayor’s office and the Oakland Planning Department seeking help, but nothing worked in their favor. The Planning Department told them to seek legal counsel.

“We’ve lost $2 million in business since Marriott encroached on our property, and all they want to offer us is $58,000, and that’s for future use of our backyard so they can finish the back side of their building. They said if we accept the money, we can’t sue them for any damages, so we didn’t sign and counter-offered for $250,000. We haven’t heard from them since, and that was in January,” said Beverly Thomas.

After Marriott completes the back side of the hotel, their last phase of construction is a four-story parking garage that will be constructed behind the Thomases’ property.

“Our backyard was where we cooked and smoked our food, and, after the pandemic, served our clients,” Jones said. “That’s impossible now, and will remain so, as the Marriott’s 18-story structure has created a wind-tunnel, which makes our property perpetually cold and has blocked out the sun.”

The Thomases have lost their tenants because of the noise and dust. The Thomases’ last remaining tenant, who asked not to be named, says her quality of life has diminished drastically, “I can’t open my windows. The shadow of their building has taken our sunlight and all my plants have died,” she said.

Further, going outside in the backyard can be dangerous. “I fear going into the backyard to perform simple daily tasks like taking out the garbage or doing laundry,” she said. “A metal bit is wedged in my window screen. If not for the screen, that metal piece would’ve broken my window,” she said. (During Jones’ interview with the Post outside his restaurant, a nail hit his shoulder.)

The Post contacted Joshua Bird, Marriott’s legal representative for comment but he declined stating he would get in touch with the Thomases directly, as “Marriott strives to be a good neighbor.” Two weeks have passed and the Thomases have not been contacted.

The Thomases’ attorney Edward Lai sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bird on May 12th and received no response. On Tuesday of this week Lai filed a formal complaint against Marriott.

William Thomas, who passed away in May 2021, died fearing Marriott was going to squeeze his family out of their property. Craig and Beverly Thomas now fear the same.

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Activism

Make Mental Wellness Part of Total Health for Black Communities

The pandemic has propelled health inequity and racism into news headlines and helped spark national conversations about the health disparities that face the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The impact of decisions about the treatment we receive or deserve are often driven by racism and the resulting implicit bias that individuals who have sworn to take care of their patients often harbor. And this affects our physical, mental, and emotional health and ultimately health outcomes.

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These conversations have provided a platform for discussion and opportunities to educate, dispel misinformation and break stigmas. Rhonda Smith, executive director of California Black Health Network.
These conversations have provided a platform for discussion and opportunities to educate, dispel misinformation and break stigmas. Rhonda Smith, executive director of California Black Health Network.

By Rhonda Smith

The next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in California has arrived. As the state begins to implement its SMARTER Plan, protecting ourselves and our communities from COVID-19 and its fast-spreading variants through vaccination can ensure better outcomes for us all.

Despite mask mandates ending, we must continue to spotlight the importance of keeping Black and African Americans healthy and encourage our community to think about being more proactive about our overall health and well-being. We can start by focusing on our whole selves—our physical, mental, and emotional health.

The pandemic has propelled health inequity and racism into news headlines and helped spark national conversations about the health disparities that face the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The impact of decisions about the treatment we receive or deserve are often driven by racism and the resulting implicit bias that individuals who have sworn to take care of their patients often harbor. And this affects our physical, mental, and emotional health and ultimately health outcomes.

A reflection on our historical relationship with the medical community has certainly warranted the level of distrust of the healthcare system, and the many stories of outright racism and discrimination experienced in the past.

One example is Dr. James Marian Sims, who performed surgeries and experiments on Black women without their permission or anesthesia. Another example, which many of us are familiar with, is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was administered by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 to better understand syphilis.

During the four decades, hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, were injected with the disease without giving their consent; and even once penicillin became a common syphilis treatment, they were left untreated.

Our distrust of the healthcare system has been further shaped by present-day experiences, with many Blacks and African Americans saying they have experienced racism during a medical visit or that their physical pain or discomfort is frequently ignored.

Unfortunately, our healthcare system has often disregarded BIPOC patient needs, and systemic racism has morphed into a true public health crisis. Despite this, as Blacks and African Americans, we have persisted. Our individual and cultural resilience equips us to persevere and survive in a system built on a foundation of discriminatory design.

As part of our culture and heritage, we have relied on an oral tradition that passes on stories about how we should care for ourselves and remedies that heal our ailments. I hear many of these stories through our network and I heard them in my own family. We have relied on our own learnings; and in some instances, we have relied on our faith. And through it all, we have found ways to maintain our health and wellness.

However, we are weathered, and enduring resiliency is hard. If we are not whole, we are not healthy. If we are not healthy, we cannot be resilient.

Resilience is an element of mental health, and our whole health comprises elements of physical, mental, and emotional wellness. This means our whole health needs to be a priority, not only one dimension or another. We must invest in our individual health and wellbeing and make it a priority so that our families, community, and all of us will be healthier and live longer.

We must look to the past to inspire a better future so that we can rewrite our heath history here in California. I appreciate the state’s COVID-19 awareness campaign which has sought to address mental health concerns and other issues that impact us by partnering with African American and Black medical experts and advocates for community conversations.

These conversations have provided a platform for discussion and opportunities to educate, dispel misinformation and break stigmas.

We are not strangers to race-based adversity, and its impact on our health and wellbeing. Racism, health inequities inequity, police brutality, and residential redlining each affect public health in its own unique way. Yet we continue to persevere.

Black History Month was a time to remember our past, honor our heroes, celebrate our great legacy of achievement. The theme for the month this year was “Black Health and Wellness”, and it was meant for us to prioritize total wellness and build a healthier history for us now and for generations to come.

For more about COVID-19, including guidance on masking and testing, visit covid19.ca.gov. You should also visit covid19.ca.gov or the CDC.gov more timely, accurate information about the pandemic. To schedule an appointment for a vaccination or a booster, visit MyTurn.ca.gov, or call 1-833-422-4255.

Rhonda Smith, executive director of California Black Health Network

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