Washington Supreme Court to Consider Constitutionality of Banning People from Certain Jobs for Life

News Release: 
Monday, May 7, 2018
The ACLU of Washington has sued the Washington Department of Early Learning (DEL) for imposing a blanket lifetime ban preventing anyone with a robbery conviction from working in childcare.  The ban applies no matter how long ago the conviction was, no matter the circumstances, and no matter how the applicant has turned around their life.
The case, Fields v. Washington State Department of Early Learning, will be argued before the Washington Supreme Court on May 8 at 9 am. It involves Christal Fields, whose childcare license was revoked by the DEL when it learned about her 30-year-old conviction. Robbery is just one of 50 crimes that DEL has placed on a lifetime ban list. Any person with a conviction for any crime on that list, or an attempt to commit a crime on the list, is ineligible to work in the areas regulated by DEL for the remainder of her life.
The lifetime ban ignores all efforts that a person makes to move beyond her criminal history and re-enter society—something Washington state otherwise actively encourages people to do. All Ms. Fields asks is that the Department consider her rehabilitation as part of a meaningful hearing process.
“Ms. Fields is not asking the court to order DEL to grant her a childcare license,” said Prachi Dave, ACLU-WA staff attorney. “All she wants is a chance to prove she is fit to work with children.”
Ms. Fields was convicted in 1988 of grabbing a woman’s purse and trying unsuccessfully to run away with it. She was homeless, a victim of domestic violence, and addicted to drugs. Ms. Fields graduated from the King County Drug Program, and completely turned her life around, eventually finding employment with a childcare facility.
“I’m a different person now,” Ms. Fields said. “I found something—working with children—that I’m good at, and that makes me happy. I want to show why I should be able to keep doing it.”
But none of that matters to DEL, which rebuffed her every attempt to present evidence of her rehabilitation and qualification to work in childcare.  The refusal to consider her individual circumstances is not only unfair, it is also unlawful: the due process clause of the Constitution requires that the government at least give Ms. Fields a meaningful chance to be heard before taking away her ability to enter her chosen profession.
Removing barriers to employment, like the permanent lifetime ban DEL imposed on Ms. Fields, is not just required by the law; it is also a matter of common sense.  People with former convictions who have served their time should be encouraged to get paying jobs and contribute to their communities. Those who have complied with all of their sentencing conditions should be able to put their criminal histories behind them. In fact, as Civil Survival and Columbia Legal Services point out in their amicus brief, this is the stated policy of the State of Washington.
Moreover, current social science research has found that any risk posed by individuals with prior criminal histories decreases so significantly over time that it becomes equal to that of a person who has never been convicted. As an amicus brief by the Northwest Justice Project states, this “research contradicts assumptions that someone with a conviction permanently poses a higher risk than the general population.”
Removing barriers to employment is also a racial justice issue, as the DEL’s policy disproportionately affects women, particularly low-income women of color. Specifically, the amicus brief filed by Legal Voice points out that women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population and that, “[c]ompared to others in society, formerly incarcerated women tend to have fewer employment opportunities, more childcare responsibilities, and [are] more likely to have been living in poverty before arrest.”
Further, an amicus brief filed by the National Employment Law Project points out that individuals with prior arrest and conviction records are disproportionately people of color and that hiring barriers “deny people with records a means to support their families and communities.”
In addition to Prachi Dave, Fields is represented by ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney Nancy Talner and ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Toby J. Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group.
Columbia Legal Services, Civil Survival, Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project, Legal Voice, National Employment Law Project, Northwest Justice Project. SEIU 925, Surge, and the Washington State Labor Council supported the case as it moved up to the Supreme Court.