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Daytona Beach News Journal

Editorial | Ex-felons as caregivers

Rights and wrongs in Florida's second-chance system

October 02, 2009

Violent felons should not be taking care of young children or old people. In Florida, they do. Contradictory state laws, lax regulations and poor enforcement have enabled thousands of ex-convicts, many with violent pasts (including rape, murder and predatory crimes against children) to hold jobs in child care centers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Child care and elder-care facilities have been required to conduct criminal background checks on new employees since 1985. But employers have up to 10 days to conduct the background check. Results take an average of 45 days but can take up to two months or more. New employees aren't barred from working while waiting for the results. An investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that 4 percent of applicants have the type of criminal background that makes them ineligible for working in facilities that care for children, and 3 percent are ineligible to care for the elderly. More than 8,700 people initially barred from such work have held (or are still holding) jobs in child care and elder-care facilities anyway since 1985. About 1,800 of them were rearrested while holding such jobs, in some cases after committing crimes involving children or older adults they were caring for.

The Sun-Sentinel investigation shouldn't be sensationalized. The investigation points to the many fault lines in the system. It also implicitly points to what works -- including the second-chance system that enables thousands of ex-felons to work.

Florida law can be too restrictive regarding ex-felons' rights to work (or even vote). For example, ex-felons may not hold jobs in schools. The state law that mandated criminal background checks for workers in child care centers and elder-care facilities, however, includes an exemption for most ex-felons who prove that they are reformed. The second-chance exemption is loose. Applicants can obtain an exemption with a cursory expression of remorse, a promise to behave and a few reference letters. Statewide, 82 percent of those who apply for an exemption are granted one.

Ex-felons should get those second chances. It is unjust to prevent an individual who has paid his or her debts to society from having a chance to re-integrate the community with the same opportunities as anyone else. Otherwise, serving a sentence in prison or on parole becomes only the first of an open-ended punishment. That's not justice. It's cruelty. The majority of ex-felons who apply for exemptions to work in child or elder-care centers don't re-commit crimes, which makes the case for the validity of the second-chance exemption. But when one in five ex-felons who does work in those environments gets rearrested, the proportion is large enough to warrant a second look at the looseness of the second-chance provision. Violent offenders, for example, should meet a higher threshold than nonviolent offenders when applying for the exemption.

The exemption isn't the only problem. Employers who hire workers with criminal backgrounds often do so to give individuals their second chance. But often, they do so because child care and elder-care workers are at the lower end of the wage scale, turnover is high in those industries, and employers end up taking risks for lack of more choices in the job pool. By allowing employers to hire first and check backgrounds later, the state encourages risky hires. That can be changed by speeding up the background-check process. Electronic background checks are available, but not required. Most background checks are conducted by paper and mail, which delays the process. A bill introduced in the Legislature this year would have made electronic checks mandatory. It failed. Legislators should give a similar bill a second chance when the Legislature meets in winter.

Not least, employee records at child care and elder-care facilities, including assisted living facilities, should be open to the public regarding employees' criminal backgrounds. A parent may examine a child care or elder-care facility's inspection records, but not verify that the employees in that facility have been properly backgrounded. That's not protecting employee privacy. It's protecting employers from accountability. Most of the content of an employee record should still remain private. But not documentation that directly reflects the employee's (or employer's) criminal history.

Revelations of criminals working in child care or elder-care facilities can trigger hysterics. These recent revelations shouldn't. But there's ample room for serious, immediate and low-cost improvements in oversight of child and elder-care facilities.