Triggered by my last column, "Working Girl," my mind wandered towards a very Bahamian practise, and that is potential employers demanding that potential employees produce "character certificates" issued by the Criminal Records Office as a standard procedure in any job application process. While I thought about it, I began to feel uncomfortable, because surely the idea behind this is that the potential employer will reject any applicant who has a criminal record.
Now ask yourself - and answer truthfully. If you were a business owner, would you hire someone with a criminal record? Most of you, I dare predict, answered in the negative, probably for good reasons. I can see how a school principal would not hire a teacher with a record of sexual molestation of minors. I can see how a bank director might have doubts about hiring a teller with a history of theft. This is a short list of crimes and jobs that have some things in common, but it is still fundamentally flawed.
It is flawed, because it is on the applicant's "character certificate," which means the police KNOW about it, and, excluding the possibility of a completely screwed up system, probably brought the case to the justice system; and the justice system dealt with it, either fining the offender a monetary amount or sentencing them to do time. This, however, means that they paid their debt to society, and now deserve a chance to start over, go past "Go" and collect $200.
Though I will admit that I would feel more than just uncomfortable if my child's teacher was a known sex offender and paedophile, I could construct examples where the offense committed and the job in prospect have little to nothing in common. Yet I believe that many of us are denied these jobs, too, because they have a criminal records. Bahamian society, and especially the Bahamian labour market actively discriminates against persons with criminal records. And the law allows this to happen.
That, however, is exactly the point that I find the most problematic, because if our laws allow this kind of discrimination against persons who have been through our legal, judicial, and penal system, then our law admits that our penal system fails at rehabilitating criminals, which means our judicial system is flawed, because somebody should not be let out of prison unless they are rehabilitated. In short: Our laws state that our laws don't work.
Without trying to sound like I condone crime, but do tell me... What is a former criminal supposed to do if they are rejected by the labour market? Rehabilitation cannot be government's responsibility alone. It is too important to be left to government. Rehabilitation has got to be OUR responsibility, and that means giving people a second chance.
For this to happen, I believe, we need to engage in discourse about legal hiring practises in the Bahamas. Maybe it might be worth considering to ask out legislators to help the aim of rehabilitation by passing a bill prohibiting employers to ask for "character certificates" as part of the application process, even if some lines of work may have to be exempted from this rule.
Maybe there are other factors, too, preventing former convicts from reentering society that also need to be addressed. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I claim to have the right to ask questions, and I believe it is our duty to enter into a debate, because I know that we cannot truthfully say that all is well in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas in the year 2009.