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Pa. Court: Unconstitutional To Bar Employment Due To Criminal Record

The Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania unanimously ruled Wednesday that a state law that prevents convicted criminals from getting full-time jobs in nursing homes or long-term-care facilities is unconstitutional.

By a 7-0 vote, the court found the law violates the due process rights of otherwise law-abiding people who may have run afoul of the justice system decades earlier. The court also concluded that a lifetime ban on employment for people convicted of crimes is not "substantially related" to the "stated objective" in the Older Adults Protective Services Act — to safeguard the elderly.

The ruling represents a victory for plaintiffs like Tyrone Peake, featured in an NPR story in April.

Peake was arrested with a friend in 1981 for trying to steal a car. Peake never got behind the wheel, but he was convicted of attempted theft of an automobile and served three years of probation. The case became a black mark that prevented him from working full time as a drug counselor for decades.

"I've been fired from three jobs," Peake told NPR, "because [of] having a criminal record. And my record is like 32 years old, and I haven't been in trouble since then."

Advocates said the ruling would give fresh momentum to a nationwide movement to allow rehabilitated criminals more access to housing and employment in fast-growing sectors of the economy. Social science researchers say the risk of returning to crime declines as convicts age, and three years ago the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission warned that excluding job candidates because of criminal history can have a disparate racial impact.

Aside from Peake, the other plaintiffs had convictions between 15 and 34 years ago for theft, drug possession, writing bad checks and assault and disorderly conduct. Since then, they had each maintained a clean criminal record. But advocates say the law on the books in Pennsylvania treated them the same as murderers and rapists.

Tad LeVan, a Philadelphia-based lawyer working pro bono for Peake and the other plaintiffs, said the "draconian lifetime employment ban, which bars otherwise qualified individuals from employment, is not just unconstitutional; it is also bad public policy."

LeVan added: "We are grateful that the unanimous Commonwealth Court recognized the numerous fundamental flaws in the statute and enjoined the commonwealth from further enforcement of the unconstitutional law."

Jeffrey Johnson, assistant press secretary for the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, which defended the law, said, "We certainly respect the court's decision."

He said authorities there are "still in the process of reviewing the opinion."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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