The twin cities of Urbana-Champaign both have ordinances which contain language that discriminates against citizens with a felony conviction. In Urbana, the Vehicle for Hire (VFH) ordinance section 26-43, under “qualifications of an applicant” reads: (a) No license shall be issued to or held by any person: (1) who has been convicted of a felony within (4) four years of the date of the application or has been released from prison or jail upon a felony conviction within (4) four years of the date of the application.”
There are at least two things that make this ordinance discriminatory. First, VFH leads to a disparate impact on African Americans, and second, it is a violation of Urbana’s own Human Rights Ordinance that lists citizens with arrest records and prior convictions as a protected class. African-Americans make up more than 60% of the population of citizens who have a felony conviction in Champaign County. Consequently, the VFH ordinance has led, and will continue to lead, to African Americans being locked out of opportunities for gainful employment.
The emergence of this issue could not have come at a better time, as the City of Urbana has been working with the local organization Citizens with Conviction (CWC) to remove the dreadful question on job applications that asks “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” The Urbana Human Relations Commission (HRC) and CWC have been working on a “Ban the Box” proposal for over a year, only to find that the City of Urbana itself has a policy that bans citizens with convictions from employment!
The Urbana Human Rights Ordinance section 12-37 clearly states that the City of Urbana intends to secure an end to discrimination based upon race, color, creed, class, “prior arrest or conviction record…” It also defines discrimination as “Any practice which is unlawfully based wholly or partially on the race, color,… prior arrest or conviction record… of any individual, or any subclass or the above groups.”
The Vehicle for Hire ordinance is irresponsible and unconstitutional because it decreases public safety by increasing unemployment rates, and it forces the person with a felony to pay twice for their mistake. Furthermore, it makes no distinction between a citizen who was sentenced to one to three years in prison for obstruction of justice and one sentenced to four to 15 years for embezzlement. Both have the same freeze according to the VFH ordinance, yet neither violation has anything to do with driving a cab, limousine or shuttle bus.
The VFH policy, and all other policies dealing with citizens with convictions, must either be completely rescinded, or opened up for honest and meaningful dialogue. Everyone wants a safe and productive community, and changing the language in the Vehicle for Hire ordinance is a great first step in that direction. You can learn more about Citizens with Conviction and their campaign to Ban the Box by emailing Aaron Ammons at firstname.lastname@example.org
Aaron Ammons is a founding member of Citizens With Conviction and CU Citizens for Peace and Justice. He is the author of two books of poetry and host of SPEAK Cafe. He has published his poems in The Griot, The Black Scholar, and The Public i.
BOX: A hearing about the proposal to “Ban the Box” in Urbana was held on July 10 at the meeting of the Human Relations Commission, and attended by some 80 people. There will be another hearing on August 14 at 5:30 p.m. at the city building, 400 S. Vine St.