Amherst Ordinance Violates Basic Human Right

ex-conby James A. Bacon

I have little sympathy for criminals. I don’t buy into the Officer Krupke school of thought that people “are depraved on account of they’re deprived.” And I’m all in favor in getting tough on crime. But I also believe that once a criminal has served his sentence , government policy should be geared to making it easier, not harder, for him to find a job and reintegrate into society.

Employers are understandably reluctant to hire ex-cons for certain types of jobs, with the consequence that many employment opportunities in government, health care, education and finance are off limits. For some felons, the only employment opportunity is creating one’s own job.

But now comes Amherst  County, enacting an ordinance in May, that allows the Commissioner of Revenue to “withdraw the privilege of doing business or exercising a trade, profession, occupation, vocation, calling or activity by revoking a business license” for anyone convicted of a felony or crime of moral turpitude.

As Eugene Volokh, a California law school professor observes, “This isn’t limited to particular job categories and particular criminal histories (e.g., barring people with child sex abuse records from working in day care centers, barring people with recent DUIs from driving trucks, and so on). If the Commissioner wishes, anyone with the specified kind of conviction could essentially be disqualified from pretty much any job in the County.”

“This sort of discretionary control over people’s lives is not how a free country should work,” writes Volokh.

I agree whole-heartedly. Indeed, I would go further. The idea expressed in the Amherst County ordinance that the right to self-employment is a “privilege” revocable by government is reprehensible in a free society. The ability to freely sell one’s labor and/or skills in the marketplace is, or should be, a foundational human right. I can’t imagine what the Amherst board supervisors were thinking when they enacted this ordinance, but they need to repeal it immediately. And if they don’t, some one needs to file a legal challenge. This is an embarrassment.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

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7 responses to “Amherst Ordinance Violates Basic Human Right

  1. Doctors and Lawyers can be stripped of their licenses for moral “turpitude” and felony convictions but the bigger point is that if people knew – most people would not do business with a convicted felon.

    that’s just the simple truth.

    You’d not want your kids teacher to be a convicted felon – no matter the crime or the nexus to the job performed.

    you don’t want cops to be convicted felons..nor any that comes to repair things in your home…

    The Police Commissioner of New York was asked why he was not in favor of releasing folks of lesser crimes early and he said that they’d return to the street – unable to get a job – and fall back into whatever they had to do to make a living..

    so these are realities … and while I agree it’s wrong to codify them in an ordinance… the real point is that there would be few jobs available if people were knowingly identified as convicted felons – which in this day and time will inevitably be revealed.

    So what’s the answer? Do you want to buy a car from a convicted felon or even get a haircut from a convicted felon?

    we’ve got more felony convictions and more folks in prison than any other country in the world – and it’s not without consequences.

    Amelia is a good example of why Dillon Rule exists.. though…

    it demonstrates that any idiot can be an “elected” or “appointed”… “official”.

  2. Jim:
    This Va. state code language may be applicable …. What the ordinance needs to do, perhaps, is make clear that one can come to the commissioner’s office as soon as their term of punishment is complete to apply for reinstatement of their license (they should not have to plead their case the way they have to do to get their voting rights back).

    § 18.2-246.5. Forfeiture of business license or registration upon conviction of sale or distribution of imitation controlled substance; money laundering.
    Any person, firm or corporation holding a license or registration to operate any business as required by either state or local law shall forfeit such license or registration upon conviction of a violation of (i) § 18.2-248 relating to an imitation controlled substance or (ii) § 18.2-246.3 relating to money laundering. Upon a conviction under this section the attorney for the Commonwealth shall notify any appropriate agency.

    1999, c. 348.

  3. Zounds! I even partially agree with Larry G. But there are a couple of practical considerations that Larry is missing.

    1. There are, in fact, probably very few who come to your house who haven’t been convicted of something. And a large percentage are felons. Get over it.

    2. You can generally find out if someone is a convicted felon just by going the court’s website and looking them up.

    3. Judgment. The exercise of judgment – generally a thing of the past and the real problem in any of this. “Broken windows” works. But in our infinite lack of wisdom, we rescind that policy because it isn’t Sooocial Justice. As Larry correctly points out, there are tons more felons out there these days because we convict more people of more stuff. Fine. Then it behooves us to go behind the conviction to find out the nature of the offense. Someone who has been convicted of the sex felony Carnal Knowledge is on much different footing than the guy who is convicted of felony Burglary. Ok, all you posters, Pop Quiz: Which is worse and why?

  4. well okay. But what I said is what would you do if you KNEW they were convicted felons?

    You are right – they are all around us – something like 20% if not mistaken.

    but the only reason many have their jobs is their status is not well known to the folks they interact with.

    And yes…. when we make a non-violent crime a felony -it has consequences to society beyond the convicted – as you’ve converted them to someone who has to depend on entitlements or if we deny them entitlements then something that is likely illegal or on the margins.

    I’m not “soft” on crime. those disposed to violence and/or prey on the innocent physically need to be kept away from society.

    I DO question the inhuman conditions under which they are incarcerated. Clearly it degrades and dehumanizes people and sends many into mental illness. Keep them apart from society – yes but there is no excuse for what we do to them in most prisons today.

    Island penal colonies would be preferable to many of our so-called “correction facilities” which are little more than modern day dungeons.

    • Mr. Gross, what would I do if I knew that the person coming to my door is a convicted felon? Probably offer him a beer (although he would prefer Jagermeister.)
      Do I condone the behavior that got him sentenced (production of meth with the intent to sell it) to prison? No. A thousand times No.
      Has he learned his lesson and is he currently a law-abiding citizen? Yes.
      Can he support his new family without a job? No.
      It all depends upon the circumstances, but if the guy goes straight after his conviction, then yes, give him job, and let him come to my door.

  5. I think I might be wrong on the 20%. It’s probably less than that – maybe 1 in 20.

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