Thursday, June 19, 2008

Westchester Guardian.

Jeff Deskovic

A Clarification Of Assemblywoman
Amy Paulin’s Proposed Legislation


In the June 5th, 2008 issue of The Guardian, a press release appeared regarding legislation that Assemblywoman Amy Paulin had sponsored
that would result in school employees, who had been found guilty of sex crimes or financial felonies,
would be “terminated immediately.”

Additionally, certification or licensing of these school officials would be “automatically revoked.” Present law provides that even after being convicted of a felony, which renders the employee unfit to work in a school, employees who hold state certifications are entitled to what is known as a Part 38 hearing to determine whether they should keep their certification. Additionally, the law provides that tenured employees convicted of these crimes are also entitled to a 3020, which is a hearing by the school district to determine whether they should keep their job.

The new legislation would provide that school employees who are convicted of sex crimes or financial felonies are terminated immediately
and that certification or licensing of those school officials would be automatically revoked.

I am always on the lookout for the so-called “tough on crime” poli-ticians to introduce their “tough on crime” proposals so that I can expose
both their policies and them. The problem with the policies promulgated by politicians who advocate measures consistent with a “tough on crime” image is that such policies often are not in society’s best interest, nor do they have anything to do with really impacting crime. They are frequently surrounded by hype.

Appeals are made to the emotions of the general public, who are frequently not well informed as to the real current state of the law, the flesh and blood impact that such laws will have.

Instead, a better way to go, I believe, is “Smart On Crime”, which is marked by a lot of non-emotional, well-thought-out ideas that are fair,
just, and in society’s best interest, as Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins advocates.

I am, of course, as a law abiding citizen, opposed to crime. In support of that contention, I would like to point out the fact that my life was permanently altered by a crime; that of Steven Cunningham, who murdered and raped Angela Correa, then sat back and remained silent as
police and prosecutorial misconduct subsequently unfolded, resulting in my wrongful conviction and imprisonment for 16 years.

My reason for being on the lookout for such policies is that I know from hard, first-hand experience, having been incarcerated, precisely
what the flesh-and-blood impact of such policies often may be, as well as what easy political targets inmates and those who have broken the law can be. As I have pointed out previously, I do not condone crime, nor do I advocate that those who have broken the law should not be punished.

However, I do firmly believe that the punishment should fit the crime, and that any punishment should be fair and consistent with the idea that people ought to be given a second chance at life, and to demonstrate that they have turned around. Unfortunately, all too often so called
“tough on crime” policies lack that philosophy, and play upon the public’s unawareness of the flesh and blood impact of such legislation
given the true state of the law, not to mention the negative impact upon society.

For example, when George Pataki cut the funding of college education for prisoners, there were a lot of emotional appeals to the populace,
who therefore supported the measure. How many people were aware that the recidivism rate was much lower for college-educated prisoners, or that the cost of college education relative to the cost of incarceration for one year, was like the difference between night and day and therefore had been a good, long-term investment for society?

When I read Assemblywoman Paulin’s proposed legislation, I was initially against the measure, because of the way in which it had been described in the press release. Were the legislation the way I was led to interpret it, it would indeed have constituted an ill-advised “tough on crime” policy that was not in society’s best interest.

How The Legislation Appeared

• School employees who are convicted of sex crimes or financial felonies are terminated immediately.

I read this to mean several things:

1) That employees who had previously committed crimes, been sentenced for it, paid their debt, completed their education and went on
to be productive members of society; that were making contributions to society by working in a school setting, would suddenly be fired.

I had no problem with the feature that if an employee has been convicted of a sex crime, that they should not be allowed to work in a school, and that the fact of their conviction should be sufficient, in and of itself, to terminate their employment, with the caveat that if they are later proven innocent, they should be automatically reinstated to the same position or one that is comparable to it.

My objection was that anybody who had previously been convicted of an offense, who had turned their life around, received an education,
and was living a crime free life while being gainfully employed by a school, should not suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them
by being fired.

2) That school teachers who had been convicted of financial crimes unrelated to their jobs would automatically be fired and lose their
certification.

My objection was that I do not believe in the idea that a person can be making significant contributions to society and the workforce, and
suddenly all that they did or accomplished goes out the window and they are worth nothing.

Imagine if a person has obtained an advanced college degree and the certification/licensing, all of which requires years to obtain. Then having
gone on to have a sterling record at the school in which they are serving the community. Fifteen years later, totally unrelated to their job, under difficult circumstances, they have a momentary lapse of judgment and are arrested and convicted of a financial crime.

The judge decides that in light of their history, their crime, while not inexcusable, does not warrant prison time. Should all of their work be cast aside, and should they lose their license? Why should they lose their ability to continue meaningful employment at a job that they have invested so much in. I don’t think that outcome is fair, either to them or to society.

There is a such thing as a second chance, and giving people a chance to turn their life around. This one size-fit-all approach is too rigid. A
hearing should take place in which the individual facts and circumstances, including employment history of the person in question, is
looked at and considered.

Let us all consider that being convicted of a crime does not automatically turn a person into a monster or render them dangerous. I reject
the term “felons”- a hype-infested, stigmatized term that seeks to make people less than flesh-and-blood human beings. We might be talking
about your neighbor’s or friend’s father, mother, son, or daughter who, if you saw them, would look like any other human being, who made a
mistake by committing a felony, and were punished for it.

There is a such thing as people being given a second chance, and rehabilitation, and being allowed to contribute to society. They should
not always and forever be automatically banned from making positive contributions to society, including in schools. Nor should they automatically, without a hearing, be removed from working at schools, without looking at facts and circumstances.

Let us keep in mind that not everybody who is arrested is a serial felony committer who is constantly on the lookout to do violence. While there are some people like that, they are clearly a minority.

What The Legislation Actually Is

I called upon Assemblywoman Paulin, and a short question-and answer session ensued. I asked whether former prisoners, who after their incarceration, had completed a college education, were living crime-free lives, and were productive members of society being employed by a school, would suddenly be fired under this legislation. She informed me that the legislation would not affect those who had been convicted of a crime previously, but would instead affect those who were employed by a school at the time of the crime. I also learned that the financial crime would have to be work-related.

I asked Paulin whether school teachers who had been convicted of financial crimes unrelated to their jobs should automatically lose their
teaching certi-cation and licensing. The Assemblywoman clarified that this legislation would not apply to school teachers, but instead was related to school officials who had access to the budget in one way or another and had misappropriated funds.

Conclusion

Upon receiving clarification of what the legislation in question would actually do, and giving the facts some consideration, I could see that it
would be a good law if passed. Needless to say, if a person has been convicted of a sex offense, they should not be allowed to work at a
school. I further believe that anyone that has committed a financial crime, theft, embezzlement, etc. and has access, in one way or another, to
funds that are allocated for a school budget, should, likewise, be fired.

To so misappropriate would be despicable, and an abuse of public trust. I consider her legislation to be well thought out, balanced, and not
excessive, and therefore support it. In light of my previous article, outlining my advocacy on a variety of prisoner re-entry issues, I would
like to say, to that segment of society that is not willing to give people a second chance that being convicted of a crime does not make a person ipso facto a danger to children or society. As an example, there are many former prisoners who work in crime prevention programs that are designed to divert youth from crime. Obviously, to reach the kids, there is interaction with them.

Similarly the same if often true in the world of drug counseling, in which ex-offenders’ former mistakes actually give them more credibility, enabling them to reach the youth who can’t simply dismiss them as mere academics by way of the frequently heard phrase, “You don’t understand”. My point is that former prisoners can make positive contributions to society.


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